Pope assures Muslims of respect, dialogue

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (AP) — Seeking to end anger in the Islamic world caused by his remarks on holy war, Pope Benedict XVI told Muslim ambassadors Monday that the two faiths must overcome any historic enmities and together reject violence — saying the future of humanity is at stake.

The Roman Catholic leader hammered at his theme that religions have no room for violent extremists while also demanding “reciprocity” in religious freedom, a Vatican call for the rights of Christians throughout the Islamic world.

“The circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well known,” Benedict said, referring to his remarks on Islam in a Sept. 12 speech at Regensburg University, Germany, which set off protests around the Muslim world.

He did not dwell on the contested remarks, in which he had quoted words attributed to a 14th century Byzantine emperor: “Show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict had already expressed regret for offending Muslims by his remarks and said they did not reflect his personal views, but he has not offered a complete apology as some had sought.

Still, his five-minute address at the formal meeting with 22 foreign diplomats and representatives of Italian Muslim organisations — he greeted them one by one and clasped their hands warmly — seemed to have been well received.

“The Holy Father stated his profound respect for Islam.

This is what we were expecting,” Iraqi envoy Albert Edward Ismail Yelda said as he left the 30-minute meeting. “It is now time to put what happened behind and build bridges.” Nearly all the other ambassadors drove away from the pontiff’s vacation palace in hills south of Rome without stopping to speak to reporters. The embassies of Egypt and Turkey said their ambassadors would have no comment. The Iranian, Indonesian, Lebanese and Libyan embassies did not answer their phones.

Fahmi Howeidi, a liberal Islamic writer in Egypt, said that since the Pope had not apologised, protests may continue. “[Benedict] addressed the ambassadors but didn’t deal with the Muslim street, the anger in the street will continue,” Howeidi said in a telephone interview.

Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford, speaking in a telephone interview, called the meeting “mainly political” and intended to improve relations with Muslim states.

“The people that were convinced he was against Islam are not going to change their minds,” said Ramadan, who in a recent commentary criticised the mass protests against Benedict’s comments, saying Muslims should instead refute the Pope’s arguments through dialogue.

Benedict touched on religion and violence, saying Christians and Muslims “must learn to work together … to guard against all forms of intolerance and to oppose all manifestations of violence.”

He quoted from a key document of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s stating that “although considerable dissensions and enmities between Christians and Muslims may have arisen in the course of the centuries,” both faiths must move on and work for “peace and freedom for all people.” Benedict said he invited the diplomats to “strengthen the bonds of friendship” between both sides, but he did offer any analysis of the controversial passage, which came in a speech exploring faith and reason.

Benedict said dialogue between Christians and Muslims “cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is, in fact, a vital necessity on which in large measure our future depends,” he said, quoting from a speech he gave to Muslims in Germany in 2005. In that speech, he exhorted Muslims to teach their children to shun violence.

Benedict has been seen as less interested as promoting close relations with Muslims as was his predecessor, John Paul II, whose travels in the Muslim world included a visit to a mosque in Syria.

He cited John Paul in his speech Monday, noted his words during a visit to Morocco in 1985 saying that “respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres,” particularly religious freedom. This is a major issue for the Vatican in Saudi Arabia and several other countries where non-Muslims cannot worship openly.

Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Among predominantly Muslim nations with diplomatic relations to the Vatican, only Sudan did not participate in the meeting.

Among those attending was a diplomat from Indonesia, where Christian-Muslim tensions were further heightened last week by the execution of three Catholic militants for attacks on Muslims during religious violence six years ago. Benedict last month had appealed for the men’s lives to be spared.

Turkey also participated. Benedict has said he hopes to go in November to the predominantly Muslim, officially secular country, whose officials were among the first to vigorously protest the Regensburg remarks.

Last week, the Holy See’s ambassadors stationed in Muslim countries met with officials to assure them that the Pope respects Islam and to urge a complete reading of the speech.

The Vatican and much of the Muslim world share some important goals, including the battle against legalised abortion. Benedict also was among the first to urge Israel to use restraint and turn to dialogue in its battle in Lebanon against Hizbollah guerrillas over the summer.

The Pope also invited leaders of Italy’s small Muslim community to the meeting.

Benedict gave “a very clear, very intelligent speech,” said Mohammed Nour Dachan, an Italian of Syrian origin who heads the Union of Islamic Communities, or UCOII, one of the more radical Italian Muslim groups. “In a few words, the dialogue goes on. The dialogue is a priority for both Muslims and Christians.” In a departure from usual practice, the Vatican press office included a translation of the speech in Arabic. It was also carried live by Al Jazeera, the Arab-language broadcaster.

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