(CNSNews.com) - During his recent visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI attended an interfaith gathering at the John Paul II Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., to speak with members of several faiths, including American Muslim leaders. His goal was to stress the importance of inter-faith communication and, especially, to further the Catholic Church's policy of maintaining good relations with members of Islam.
"The higher goal of inter-religious dialogue requires a clear exposition of our respective religious tenets," the pope told the gatehring. "The Holy See, for its part, seeks to carry forward this important work through the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, and various Pontifical Universities."
The conflict between Catholics and Muslims dates back hundreds of years to the Dark Ages and the Crusades. Interfaith communication was not initiated until 1965 when Pope Paul VI encouraged dialogue between Muslims and Catholics with a statement in his papal document Nostrae Aetate.
"Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding," Paul VI wrote.
Pope John Paul II - born in 1920, served as pope 1978-2005 -- in particular strove to strengthen the Muslim-Catholic dialogue. In 1979, one year after he became pope, he addressed Catholics in Turkey saying, "I wonder if it is not urgent, precisely today when Christians and Muslims have entered a new period of history, to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us."
Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), who led the Muslim delegation attending the event, said the interfaith meeting was "very successful," because it expressed the commitment of both Islamic and Catholic leaders to improve dialogue .
The pope was presented with symbolic gifts from representatives of each of the major religions in attendance at the gathering: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and Judaism. A representative of American Muslims gave him "a small, finely crafted edition of the Qur'an, in green leather and gold leaf edging."
"These are symbolic gestures where we express our appreciation and our reverence to a leader who represents 1.3 billion Catholics," said Syeed, "but the real progress is made when we are in touch with the Catholic Church here and all over the world ... it has been moving forward for all these years. There have been problems, but since we are determined to carry on, we hope those problems will not distract us."
Pope Benedict closed his address saying, "May the followers of all religions stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere. By giving ourselves generously to this sacred task - through dialogue and countless small acts of love, understanding and compassion - we can be instruments of peace for the whole human family."
The Vatican had agreed in March, after meeting for two days with Muslim scholars from around the world, to establish the "Muslim-Catholic Forum," and to organize the Forum's first seminar in Rome. The theme of the seminar is "Love of God, Love of Neighbor" and will be held Nov. 4-6, 2008, according to a Vatican press release.
The meeting and the subsequent formation of the Muslim-Catholic Forum were arranged in response to an open letter written to Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 13, 2006 and signed by 138 Muslim scholars from around the world seeking to engage in deeper dialogue with the Catholic Church.
Dr. Syeed said the theme of the upcoming seminar would be a constructive one for both religions. "Love of God, Love of Neighbor' is a main message of Christ, and Christians love it," said Syeed. "Christians believe this is their mission. This is true within Islam as well. ... It's our duty to respect human beings as human beings."
"God has created diversity and we have to respect that diversity," Syeed told Cybercast News Service . "That does not mean that we have to dilute our religions."
Bishop Richard Sklba, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, also had positive expectations for the seminar. He said the theme of the seminar is one that "goes to the core of our Jewish-Catholic-Christian tradition," and that there are "similar dimensions to the ethics that are described and commanded in the Qu'ran, so it's a common element."
While most American-Muslim groups, including the Islamic Center of America, the Fiqh Council of North America, and the Council of American-Islamic Relations welcomed the pope, and were eager to attend the Interfaith Gathering, at least one-the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), chose not to attend.
Edina Lekovic, communications director for MPAC, told Cybercast News Service that the organization chose to decline the invitation "as a matter of principle, not protest."
"Based on a long track record of real substantive interfaith dialogue, we were initially looking forward to this meeting with the pope," said Lekovic, "but when we found out that the meeting itself was going to be more ceremonial than substantive, we had second thoughts."
Lekovic said that many Muslims are concerned about some of the pope's public actions, such as his recent Easter baptism of controversial Italian journalist Magdi Allam who was formerly Muslim, but now denounces Islam as an inherently violent religion.
Still, Lekovic agreed that the "Love of God, Love of Neighbor" seminar is a step in the right direction.
"That's precisely the kind of forum that is needed to regain some kind of trust between the pope and Muslim leaders," she said.
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