By Sabina Castelfranco
Pope Benedict XVI plans to meet later this year with Muslim religious leaders and scholars as part of a push for greater dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. A seminar has been scheduled in Rome for November.
The Vatican has been eager to improve relations with the Muslim world. For the past two days, preparatory talks have been held at the Vatican with five Muslim scholars and five Vatican officials to prepare a meeting in November on greater dialogue between the two faiths.
The participants agreed to hold the seminar in Rome, to be attended by two dozens leaders and scholars from both sides. Pope Benedict will receive the seminar participants.
Professor Aref Ali Nayed, Director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan attended the preparatory meeting.
"The atmosphere was quite positive and welcoming, and it was very nice to be with our counterparts from the Catholic Church," he said. "Furthermore, by the end of the meetings we emerged with a permanent structure that will ensure that the Catholic-Muslim engagement and dialogue continues into the future to work out issues and to work out an exchange of opinions about important matters. So we together established something which is called the Catholic-Muslim Forum, which will be meeting every two years - one year in Rome and the subsequent meeting will be in a Muslim country and there will be alternation."
Professor Nayed is one of almost 140 Muslim scholars and intellectuals who wrote to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders last year to encourage Christians and Muslims to develop common ground. More scholars have since signed on, raising the number to 240.
Catholic-Muslim relations suffered a serious setback in 2006 after the pope delivered a lecture in Germany that, in the view of many Muslims, implied that Islam is violent and irrational.
Professor Nayed said that for some Muslims the wounds from the pope's German lecture are still open.
"For some Muslims, they are not healed, completely not healed," he added. "And there are some Muslims who are boycotting the Vatican. And some important Muslims and some important bodies of Muslim scholars still feel offended by that quite deeply."
Professor Nayed said that although the pope's speech was, in his words, "a huge mistake," the Vatican has since shown positive signs. He said Pope Benedict - in his visit to Turkey's Blue Mosque in November 2006 - has sought to make amends.
Although Pope Benedict repeatedly expressed regret for the reaction to his speech in Germany, he stopped short of the clear apology sought by Muslims.