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Pope Meets With Muslim Scholars


Muslim and Catholic scholars held an unprecedented meeting at the Vatican. Over three days they vowed to work together to combat violence and terrorism, especially when carried out in God's name. A joint declaration called for freedom of conscience but did not address the issue of conversion. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: 58 scholars, 29 from each faith, gathered at the Vatican for an inter-religious dialogue under the theme 'Love of God, Love of Neighbor.' At a final public session the Muslim delegation spokesman Ibrahim Kalin(ph) read from the final declaration.


Mr. IBRAHIM KALIN (Spokesman, Muslim Delegation): We professed that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers and for humanity as a whole. Renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion and upholding the principle of justice for all.

POGGIOLI: The Muslim-Catholic forum came two years after Pope Benedict in a speech at Regensburg University in Germany used language that suggested Islam is violent and irrational. The words triggered angry protest in the Islamic world. Dozens of Muslim scholars then wrote a letter to the Pope refuting his statements and calling for better mutual understanding. It came to be known as the common initiative, gathering together 271 religious leaders and scholars from Sunni, Shiites, Sufi and other traditions in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Ingrid Mattson, a convert who heads the largest Muslim organization in North America, said the initiative was born out of a sense of urgency that religion has become an unacceptable source of conflict.

Dr. INGRID MATTSON (Islamic Society of North America): Our misunderstandings have created conflict and tension in the world in a way that has alarmed us. And we feel a sense of shame that our sacred faiths are the reason or the justification for such conflicts.

POGGIOLI: Earlier in the day Pope Benedict told the forum there is a great and vast field in which we can act together in defending and promoting the moral values which are part of our common heritage. And he called on both faiths to resolve to overcome past prejudices and to correct the often distorted images of the other which even today can create difficulties in our relations. At the final public session, French Catholic scholar Joseph Maila(ph) pointed out however that neither side would compromise on issues of theology.

Mr. JOSEPH MAILA (French Catholic Scholar): (Through Translator) Our dialogue is not an amiable exchange; we're affirming our convictions, not opinions. This are our beliefs, these are the essence of our lives. We're not ready to make concessions about our faith or our roots.


POGGIOLI: Asked by a reporter why the thorny issue of conversion was missing from the joint statement, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian Muslim scholar at George Washington University, said in the past Muslims had been killed for converting to another faith, because in the Muslim world Islam was closely allied to the state and therefore conversion was tantamount to treason. He said many Muslim jurors are now redefining the concept of apostasy. The Vatican is particularly concerned about repression of Christian minorities in some Islamic countries, but the Muslim delegation did not include any participants from Saudi Arabia, a country which does not allow worship of non-Muslim religions. And at the final session Ramsey Das(ph), an Iraqi Christian, said that Christians are being forced to flee Iraq in Palestinian territories and are now an endangered species.

Mr. RAMSEY DAS (Iraqi Christian): We are now dying. We are being subjected to genocide. We are being subjected to conversion.

POGGIOLI: But the Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr said the prosecution of Christians in the Middle East is small compared to that of Muslims in Bosnia in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, and he blamed the current violence against Christians in the Middle East on the Bush administration.

Professor SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR (George Washington University): Unfortunately, tragically, because the Middle East became crushed under the pressure of a power which the ordinary people associate with Christianity.

POGGIOLI: The Catholic-Muslim forum will now meet every two years and the two delegations agreed to study the possibility of creating a permanent community to deal jointly with conflicts and emergency situations such as the 2006 Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that sparked violent protest in the Islamic word. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.