Vatican Prepares For Interreligious Meeting With Muslim Leaders

ROME, Feb 8, 2008 / 06:18 am (CNA) - The first meetings were held earlier this week at the Vatican to prepare for the visit of representatives of the 138 Muslim scholars who have offered to conduct interreligious dialogue, Italian journalist and church expert Sandro Magister reports.

In October of 2007, 138 Muslim scholars addressed a letter that titled “A Common Word Between Us and You” to Pope Benedict XVI and the heads of other Christian churches in an attempt to spark dialogue with Christians.

In response to the letter, Pope Benedict said that the discussion should focus on human dignity and religious freedom first, since the Muslims’ proposed discussion topics of love of God and neighbor require these rights be respected first.

The first meetings at the Vatican will take place next spring at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and will be presided over by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.  The Muslim representatives will meet with Pope Benedict and other Church officials, holding study sessions at institutes like the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, the lead promoter of the scholars’ letter, coordinated the meeting with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarisco Bertone.

The Muslim delegation is composed of several scholars. Foremost among them is Aref Ali Nayed, a member of the Interfaith Program of the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a former teacher at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome.  Another representative is Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, a prominent Italian Muslim who is the head of the al-Wahid mosque in Milan and vice-president of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy.  Other delegates include Ibrahim Kalin, a professor from Turkey who teaches at Georgetown University, and Sohail Nakhooda, originally from Jordan, who is director of “Islamica Magazine,” which is edited in the United States.

Aref Ali Nayed is one of the leading Muslim experts in Western philosophy and Christian theology, having studied at the Gregorian in Rome as well as universities in the United States and Canada.  One of the major architects of the 138 Muslim scholars’ letter, he has also personally replied to Cardinal Tauran’s message to Muslims addressed during the last Ramadan.

According to Sandro Magister, Yahya Pallavicini is the son of Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, a European convert to Sufi Islam who participated in the 1986 interreligious prayer meeting in Assisi organized by Pope John Paul II.   Yahya Pallavicini, 43, has been a consultant on Islam for the Italian interior ministry since 2006.  A devout Muslim critic of violent tendencies of Muslim thought and practice, he has said that “acts of violence find no legitimization in the teachings of the prophet Mohammed or of the wise men.”  He has also opposed separatist uses of Sharia law and what he called “the culture of hatred” found in many Italian mosques, whose imams he calls “political instigators with nothing authentically Islamic about them.”

Pallavicini has also openly opposed a fatwa banning all dialogue with Jews that was issued on the Arabic television station al-Jazeera by the very influential fundamentalist Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi.