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VATICAN LETTER Oct-24-2008 (870 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Catholics, Muslims to open new chapter in dialogue

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Vatican and Muslim representatives are set to open a new chapter of dialogue in an encounter that is expected to touch on common spiritual principles and perspectives on human rights.

It will be the first meeting of the Catholic-Muslim Forum, formed in the wake of widespread Muslim indignation over Pope Benedict XVI's speech in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006.

The Nov. 4-5 sessions at the Vatican will take place behind closed doors, followed by a public session Nov. 6 with a few representatives from each side. Both delegations include women scholars.

The pope is expected to address the approximately 50 participants at some point in their discussions, an address that is already awaited with interest.

While no official agenda has been published, the theme of the talks is "Love of God, Love of Neighbor," and the sessions are expected to focus on two areas:

-- On the first day, the theological and spiritual foundations of Christian and Muslim teachings on love and charity, a topic that points toward broad areas of agreement and perhaps practical cooperation.

-- On the second day, human dignity and mutual respect, an area that may allow the Vatican to press its concerns about human rights and the treatment of minority Christian communities in Muslim countries, including Iraq.

To date, the Vatican has said little about the upcoming meeting, and there seems to be a deliberate attempt not to raise expectations or to portray this dialogue session as the defining moment in Catholic-Muslim relations.

When he recently briefed the Synod of Bishops on the upcoming encounter, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, underlined that this was not the first time the Vatican has held an important dialogue with Muslims.

He said the fundamental text for the Catholic side remains "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's 1965 declaration on relations with non-Christians.

Muslim participants involved in preparing the meeting have said it's important that this new forum not focus on political issues or end up debating a "list of grievances" on both sides. Instead, they have expressed hope that the dialogue can counter misperceptions of the Islamic world in the West.

"The Vatican has worked to overcome the negative perceptions caused by some in the West who use religious language to veil political or cultural hatreds, but this is not always noted in the Muslim world," said Abdal Hakim Murad, president of the Muslim Academic Trust in London and a principal Muslim representative who helped work out the November meeting last spring.

In a statement issued at that time, Murad faulted the mass media for underreporting the many interreligious conferences that condemn terrorism and unjust war.

"In consequence, too, many in our world are unaware of the quieter but immensely hopeful story of real theological, personal and spiritual respect which exists between members of the Abrahamic faiths," he said.

One Catholic who will attend the November meeting, but who asked not to be named, said highlighting common ground was an understandable goal, but that it was important to focus on areas of difference as well as agreement.

"To accept that we are different but can still live together in cooperation would be much more important, I think, than just to say how much we have in common," he said.

On the Catholic side, he added, topics like conversion, the status of religious minorities and other human rights issues will not be off the table.

A preview of some church talking points was offered by Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll at an Anglican-sponsored Christian-Muslim conference in England in mid-October.

Father Troll, a professor of Islamic studies who will participate in the Vatican meeting, described five areas where courageous dialogue and acknowledgment of differences are needed in order for Christian-Muslim dialogue to make real progress:

-- How God's love works to help people overcome self-centeredness.

-- The diverse Christian and Muslim understanding of their respective Scriptures.

-- Divine rights and human rights

-- The relationship of religion and state.

-- Violence in the name of religion.

The November meeting, by its very structure, underlines a Catholic-Muslim difference: Catholic participation is being coordinated by the Vatican's interreligious dialogue council, while the Islamic delegation represents a less formal cross-section of Muslim thinkers.

Members of the Muslim delegation will be speaking only for themselves, not in any official capacity for the various schools of Islamic thought.

The Catholic-Muslim Forum will meet a little more than a year after 138 Muslim scholars sent the pope a letter titled "A Common Word," which proposed a new level of dialogue based on theological common ground.

Catholic experts found much to like in the letter, although some pointed out that it failed to raise the issue of religious freedom. The letter sought to move dialogue forward after the pope's Regensburg address, which was seen by many Muslims as unfair toward Islam.

Last March, the pope invited representatives of the Common Word group to the Vatican, and the November meeting was set.

Although the Vatican appeared to be playing down expectations, some of the Muslim participants are already preparing for a second meeting of the forum to take place in 2010, this time in a Muslim country.


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