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Pope Expresses Respect for Islam

Benedict tells Muslim diplomats from 20 nations that world peace depends in large part on the ability to build bridges between faiths.

September 26, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI brought together diplomats from more than 20 Islamic countries Monday and told them that Christians and Muslims must overcome historical enmities and join to reject all forms of violence and intolerance.

The extraordinary gathering at the pope's summer residence just south of Rome was the latest effort by Benedict to quell the furor stirred two weeks ago by controversial remarks he made about Islam. He is attempting to channel the emotion into what he calls an authentic and respectful dialogue.

Expressing his "esteem and profound respect" for Islam's believers, the pope said world peace and the future of the human race depended in large part on the ability of Christians and Muslims to build "bridges of friendship" and engage one another as they confronted danger and challenges.

"Faithful to the teachings of their own religious traditions, Christians and Muslims must learn to work together ... to guard against all forms of intolerance and to oppose all manifestations of violence," the pope said. And as "religious authorities and political leaders, we must guide and encourage them in this direction."

Benedict spoke in French for about five minutes, then greeted each participant, shaking hands and exchanging a few words. Although the pope meets annually with the full diplomatic corps, Monday's hastily arranged session was a departure from normal papal practice and signaled the intensity with which the Vatican was seeking to defuse the crisis.

Privately some of the participants at Castel Gandolfo expressed frustration that there was not more of an opportunity for give and take. But publicly most said they welcomed the encounter.

"It was a very positive meeting, and it could be more positive if we can consider this a starting point," said Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, one of about 20 representatives from Italy's Muslim communities who attended.

"It was a meeting on dialogue and the pope spoke about dialogue, but it was a monologue," Pallavicini said. "It will be interesting to see how he reacts now and how open he is to dialogue."

Iraq's ambassador to the Holy See, Albert Edward Ismail Yelda, said he considered the meeting to be a major step forward.

"I think it is time to put what happened behind us and build bridges among all the civilizations," Yelda told reporters outside Castel Gandolfo. "The Holy Father expressed his profound respect for Islam and other religions; this is what we were expecting, and this is what we had."

"The meeting has opened a new phase," said Abdallah Redouane, secretary-general of Rome's Islamic Cultural Center.

Benedict sparked outrage in much of the Muslim world after quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor who attacked Islam as "evil and inhuman." The reference came during a long address on Sept. 12 about faith and reason delivered to scholars at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where Benedict taught theology in the 1970s.

Protests at times turned violent and may have led to the slaying of an Italian nun last week in Somalia.

The pope has apologized twice for the angry reactions, and said the emperor's comments did not reflect his beliefs and insisted he did not intend to cause offense. His top aides also have attempted to explain what the pope meant, and the Holy See dispatched its ambassadors to offer clarifications to national and religious leaders.

Monday's audience was the latest step. The ambassadors or representatives of 21 predominantly Muslim countries plus the Arab League attended the meeting, the Vatican said. They included an envoy from Turkey, a Muslim but officially secular country that the pope plans to visit Nov. 28. Several Turkish officials had harshly criticized the pope's Regensburg address.

The Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera broadcast the pope's remarks live, and the Vatican released an Arabic translation of the text.

"In a world marked by relativism and too often excluding the transcendence and universality of reason," Benedict said, "we are in great need of an authentic dialogue between religions and between cultures, capable of assisting us, in a spirit of fruitful cooperation, to overcome all the tensions together."

Quoting his predecessor, John Paul II, he also called for "reciprocity in all spheres," especially religious freedom. It is one of the pope's major arguments that if Muslims can worship and build mosques in the West, Christians should be allowed to do the same in Islamic countries, which is often not the case.

Benedict concluded by noting the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and wished his visitors well.

"When threats mount up against people and against peace, by recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them," the pope said.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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