ISLAM-DIALOGUE Sep-19-2006 (970 words) xxxn

Leaders say papal remark won't halt Catholic-Muslim dialogue

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Two leaders in U.S. Catholic-Muslim dialogue said Pope Benedict XVI's recent remarks in Regensburg, Germany, about Islam and violence in the name of religion will cause problems but will not reverse 20 years of growing Catholic-Muslim relations in the United States.

John Borelli, special assistant to the president for interreligious initiatives at Georgetown University, told Catholic News Service that as soon as he learned of the pope's remarks "I knew that there was going to be great trouble."

Sayyid M. Syeed, head of the Islamic Society of North America, said, "We were shocked and very saddened," especially since "our generation has been raised to look to the pope as a symbol of unity and a symbol of religious reverence."

"This tragedy cannot set back the clock" on Catholic-Muslim dialogue and mutual understanding, he said. "The atmosphere that we have built jointly has been tremendously cooperative and tremendously mutually appreciated."

In an academic talk Sept. 12 at Regensburg University the pope used a 14th-century text from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus to introduce a discussion of faith and reason. He said the emperor, in dialogue with a Persian scholar, "addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed 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.'"

Just before that, the pope had quoted from the Quran, "There is no compulsion in religion," but added, "According to the experts, this is one of the suras (chapters) of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat."

Syeed said the pope was "factually wrong" about that. Scholars believe the second sura, which contains that verse, dates to Mohammed's period in Medina "when the prophet was in power," he said, not in the Mecca years when Mohammed had not yet gained political power.

Borelli, who was interreligious affairs specialist for the U.S. bishops for 17 years, played a key role in establishing the three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Syeed played a central role on the Muslim side in forming the Midwest regional dialogue, which is co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America.

In an e-mail to friends that he subsequently forwarded to CNS, Syeed said that he had been in Detroit Sept. 12-13 for the 10th annual Muslim-Catholic retreat co-sponsored by his society and the USCCB.

He said that after learning of the pope's remarks he has been in discussions with Catholic dialogue leaders about what actions they might take, including possibly sending a delegation of Muslims to the Vatican "and explaining to the pope and his advisers why this kind of language is offensive and what the true role of Islam has been through history."

Imam Yahya Hendi, chaplain to the 400 Muslim students at Georgetown University, said he and the students "were surprised and shocked" at the pope's remarks. Part of the surprise was "because we have so much respect for the pope himself" and his comments were "completely unexpected," he said.

Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown are "exceptionally good," the imam said. Muslims are very engaged in the activities of the Christian community there and vice versa, he said. He said the Muslim students' reaction was not anger, but a feeling that maybe Muslims need to understand the pope better and engage him more.

After the pope apologized to those who were offended by his remarks, Imam Hendi posted a note on his Web site urging Muslims to "honor this apology and regret unfortunate statements made" in reaction to the original remarks.

Syeed told CNS he fully agreed "that violence has no role in religion."

"Religion is the spiritual side of man, the angelic side," he said. "The role of religion is to enhance, to reinforce that angelic side, to help us to overcome any tendency towards violence."

Speaking of the history of conflict between Christians and Muslims, he praised Pope John Paul II for creating "a new environment, a departure from all those stereotypes, those mutual recriminations."

"We have to work on that. We expect our present pope as well to reinforce that," he said.

Borelli said the pope "quoted a passage which was an example of the kind of mutual insults that Christians and Muslims were hurling at each other for centuries."

"He certainly has not identified with that speaker, with that quote, but it was such detail (in the pope's speech) that the line between narration and accusation was blurred," Borelli said.

He said his years in interreligious dialogue have taught him, however, "that a situation like this can lead to a great step forward. This has been true in ecumenical and in Jewish relations, too."

Borelli said some who are not interested in dialogue might try to exploit the pope's words for their own purposes, but "we really need to listen to our Muslim partners in dialogue, who really care, and hear what they are saying. ... They don't want this to end like this; they want some kind of serious reflection why all of this -- which is beneath the surface, the effects of centuries of hostility and polemics -- why the effects of bitterness and suspicion so quickly re-emerge and what can we do about that."

Citing the Catholic-Muslim friendships and acts of reciprocity that had been built up during Pope John Paul's pontificate, Borelli said, "I don't think we're going back to 20 years ago. ... I hope we can weather the next few weeks and move forward with greater trust and hope and cooperation."

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