Vatican seeks broad-based global exchange with Muslims

By staff writers
March 6, 2008

Officials from the Vatican and senior Muslims are holding a two-day meeting in Rome this week, with the intention of laying the foundations for a major global Catholic-Islamic exchange later in 2008.

Five senior figures from each faith are defining the terms of a larger meeting involving Pope Benedict XVI, reports the BBC.

Catholic-Muslim relations soured after a 2006 speech in Germany, in which the Pope quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor's criticisms of Islam. The Regensburg speech provoked Muslim fury and triggered protests worldwide.

The Pope said that his quotation, which was illustrative, rather than approving, had been taken out of context in an address seeking to uncover the sources of rationality in Christian and Muslim thought.

Since then, 138 Muslim scholars have launched a widely publicised appeal to the Pope and other senior Christian leaders throughout the world for greater dialogue. One senior Vatican official appeared to pour cold water on the exercise late last year, but now the Pope's senior adjutants have made it clear that conversation with Muslims is a high priority.

Rome is also said to be observing closely the fallout from remarks made by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams on means of recognising aspects of family sharia judgement within the English civil law - which caused outrage and a flurry of comment in Britain and elsewhere.

Among the Muslim representatives at this week's two-day talks are a Turk, a Briton, a Jordanian, a Libyan and an Italian. The Vatican has regular meetings with officials from Cairo's al-Azhar University, a seat of Sunni Muslim learning with a global profile.

Dr Williams' Building Bridges Christian-Muslim seminars have also been studied carefully by Vatican interfaith specialists and advisers, and are seen as quietly having set the tone and style for constructive theological conversation.

But the Vatican's wishes are also for wider exchanges about religion in the world, polity and practical relations, as well as responses to the growth of secularism in its different forms - some positive and tolerant, others much more hostile.

Pope Benedict had been hesitant at the beginning of his tenure, but he is now convinced of the need for a wider, if more difficult, dialogue with Islam, say observers.

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