A new Catholic-Muslim forum must tackle human dignity and religious freedom issues if it is to yield results, according to two prominent Church scholars.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue announced the new forum March 5 after a two-day meeting between representatives of the Pontifical Council and five signatories of the open letter “A Common Word.”

The letter was sent by 138 Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict XVI and Christian leaders in October and called for greater collaboration between the two faiths.

The forum’s creation was announced in a statement released by the heads of the two delegations, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, president of the U.K.-based Muslim Academic Trust.

The statement said the forum’s first seminar would be held in Rome Nov. 4-6 on the theme “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.” Other themes, such as “Theological and Spiritual Foundations” and “Human Dignity and Mutual Respect,” will be discussed subsequently.

The statement said 24 religious leaders and scholars from each faith will attend the November meeting, and Pope Benedict XVI will receive the participants in a private audience.

Speaking to reporters March 11, Cardinal Tauran said the forum would provide “a sort of hotline always available if we need to talk and meet about a problem or take an initiative.”

Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, said in a press conference that the forum is a “sign of hope.”

He said the Muslim scholars wanted to promote dialogue with others, and unity among mainstream Muslims not represented by the “loud, violent, cruel” minority sometimes portrayed as representing all of Islam.

Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, professor of Oriental Theology at St. Joseph’s University in Lebanon, welcomed the new forum.

“It’s a good step because it is something institutional and it’s regular,” Father Samir said. “As with anything starting out, it needs time, but the good intentions are there and one can be sure the group will go on because it has a firm base.”

Father Samir said that even though the forum is not a juridical representative of Islam, due to the religion’s lack of a central authority, its diverse nature will give it moral weight.

Specifics Needed

But to be truly successful the forum must go beyond generalities, Father Samir said.

“It’s still too much connected with the letter from the 138 Muslim scholars,” he said. “That letter was not bad but it was so general and theoretical that it failed to confront the real situation.”

As an example, Father Samir pointed to the question of what definition of “neighbor” will be used for the forum’s initial theme of love of God and one’s neighbor. Defining neighbor too generally will take the dialogue nowhere, he suggested.

“Does it include everyone, enemies, political or non-political persons, non-believers, different cultures considered by some as more secular?” he asked. “What does mutual respect mean? What about freedom of conscience, religious freedom?”

George Weigel, papal biographer and author of Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, agreed that the forum needs to deal in specifics.

Said Weigel, “This dialogue might actually produce useful results if it focuses on the issues that Benedict XVI has stressed: religious freedom, and the separation of religious and political authority in the state.”

Weigel said these are moral as well as political questions, as they relate to the natural moral law. If the forum’s Muslim participants “insist that these are ‘extrinsic’ issues that should be dealt with at the U.N. because they’re ‘political’ questions,” he said, “the conversation is going to spin its wheels.”

At his Rome press conference, Aref Ali Nayed said he hoped the Catholic-Muslim Forum would be a place where leaders from both sides could strengthen their commitment to religious freedom without their meetings turning into an exchange of “a list of grievances.”

However, Father Samir said it would be key for the Muslim scholars to open themselves up to criticism.

“Very often [Muslims] will criticize, but if you criticize them they see that as aggression,” he said. “Mutual respect means being sincere, frank and clear.”

The Egyptian Jesuit pointed to comments Nayed made March 5 about the Pope’s September 2006 lecture in Regensburg, Germany.

In that lecture about the proper relationship between faith and reason, the Holy Father included a brief quote from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who criticized some aspects of Islam.

Nayed called the Regensburg lecture a “huge mistake.”

Father Samir said the Regensburg lecture has actually served as the catalyst for the new forum.

“That is an opinion but it doesn’t deal with the facts,” Father Samir said about Nayed’s criticism of Benedict. “Muslims have to learn to give arguments for their opinions.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.