VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Representatives of the Vatican and of the 138 Muslim scholars who wrote to Pope Benedict XVI last October proposing a new dialogue have established the Catholic-Muslim Forum.
The forum will sponsor a seminar in Rome Nov. 4-6 with 24 scholars from each side, according to a statement released at the end of a March 4-5 planning meeting at the Vatican.
Pope Benedict will meet with the seminar participants in November, the statement said.
Accepting the central topic suggested by the 138 in their letter to the pope and other Christian leaders, the seminar planners have said the theme will be “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.”
The Nov. 4 session will focus on the theological and spiritual foundations of Christian and Muslim teachings about the obligation to love God and one’s neighbor. The second day will focus on “human dignity and mutual respect” and the third day will be a conference open to the public, the statement said.
Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan, told reporters at a press conference that “the atmosphere was quite positive and welcoming” during the planning meeting.
He said there was a discussion about comments by some Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, that it was difficult or impossible to engage in a theological dialogue with Muslims. The 138 scholars have insisted they want to discuss common theological and spiritual principles and not focus on political or social questions.
“I think there was a bit of a misunderstanding which was clarified through the two days of meetings,” Nayed said.
The Muslims did not refuse to discuss concrete social or political issues, he said.
“What we meant was that addressing social-political issues should be rooted in the revelation of God and in the theological teachings of our two communities,” because believers judge situations based on their faith, he said.
While Nayed said many Muslims still were upset over Pope Benedict’s use of a negative quote about Islam during a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, the Common Word initiative — as the dialogue between the Muslims and Vatican has come to be known — was designed to help people look forward with hope.
“This whole initiative is about healing; it is about healing the wounds of a very pained and, in many ways, destroyed world,” he said.
At the press conference, the Muslim delegates expressed their concern over the Feb. 29 kidnapping of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul, Iraq, and offered their prayers for his release.
“We also take this opportunity to remind our fellow Muslims that it is against the Prophet’s (Mohammed) teaching to even touch religious leaders and monks and priests,” Nayed said. “Religious leaders and religious symbols must be respected.”
Nayed also said he understood that Pope Benedict was concerned about restrictions on religious freedom faced by Christians in some majority Muslim countries, but he hoped the Catholic-Muslim Forum would be a place where leaders from both sides could strengthen their commitment to religious freedom for all people without having the meeting turn into an exchange of “a list of grievances.”
Mainly, he said, the Muslim scholars want to promote hope by promoting dialogue with others and unity among mainstream Muslims not represented by the “loud, violent, cruel” minority sometimes painted as representing all of Islam.
The scholars want their leaders to meet the pope and other Christian leaders because “the sight of these leaders with our leaders, standing together in love of God, love of neighbor,” would be a sign of hope “that the religious communities can be a help to getting humanity out of the cruelty cycle it is in, rather than being a cause of the cruelty cycle,” he said.
In addition to the formation of the Catholic-Muslim Forum, the Common Word initiative has led to plans for major Christian-Muslim meetings in Great Britain and the United States.
At each of the meetings, Nayed said, female Muslim scholars who signed the original letter will participate “not because they are women, but because they are great scholars.”
When asked, he said it would have been “presumptuous” for the Muslim delegation to encourage the Vatican to name some female Catholic scholars to its 24-member delegation for the November meeting.
In a written statement to the press, Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, director of Britain’s Muslim Academic Trust, said those who believe in God have a responsibility and an opportunity to reach out to each other, to work together and to promote religious values in the world.
Recent research suggests that the main problem people have with religion today is not their doubt about the existence of God, “but rather the widespread sense that religion brings discord rather than healing to the world,” Winter wrote.
“The reality of engagement between believers of different traditions is overwhelmingly one of conviviality; but extremists on all sides veil this by using language of exclusion and contempt,” he said.
The other Muslim participants in the planning meeting were: Ibrahim Kalin, director of the SETA Foundation in Ankara, Turkey, and a professor at Georgetown University in Washington; Yahya Pallavicini, vice president of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy and an imam in Milan; and Sohail Nakhooda, editor of Islamica Magazine in Jordan.
The Vatican participants were: Cardinal Tauran, the meeting’s host; Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, secretary of the interreligious dialogue council; Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, head of the council’s section for relations with Muslims; Comboni Father Miguel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies; and German Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll, a visiting professor of Islam at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.