National Catholic Register


Muslim Ambassadors Receptive to Benedict’s Invitation

Diplomats from 21 Islamic countries and Muslim leaders from Italy were especially invited by the Pope to attend a special audience with him Sept. 25.


Register Correspondent

October 8-14, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/4/06 at 10:00 AM


VATICAN CITY — The Muslim dignitaries respectfully rose to their feet and warmly applauded Pope Benedict XVI as he entered the grand Swiss Hall at Castel Gandolfo.

And they spontaneously repeated the gesture again when he left half an hour later.

Diplomats from 21 Islamic countries and Muslim leaders from Italy, especially invited by the Pope to attend a special audience with him Sept. 25, were unanimous in their approval of the unprecedented gesture, intended to address the controversy triggered by misinterpretation of the Pope’s Sept. 12 address at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

“This meeting was a brilliant idea of Vatican diplomacy,” Ambassador Bambang Prayitno of Indonesia told the Register afterward, adding that it helped to reassure Muslims around the world of the Church’s respect for Islam.

Other representatives called it an invaluable initiative in helping both religions to dialogue.

“He’s helped to smooth away the bad feelings that some Muslims had felt in their hearts,” said Ahamad Al-Ibrahim, Kuwait’s ambassador to the Holy See. “Let’s now forget the past and concentrate on the future — that was the fruit of this meeting.”

During a 10-minute address in French, the Holy Father reaffirmed “all the esteem and the profound respect” he has for Muslim believers. He cited the Second Vatican Council declaration Nostra Aetate (The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), which states the Church’s “appreciation” for Muslims who “worship the one God.”

Benedict emphasized his wish “to continue establishing bridges of friendship,” but also used the occasion to explain how to make those bridges more real, lasting and fruitful.

“In a world marked by relativism and too often excluding the transcendence and universality of reason, we are in great need of an authentic dialogue,” the Pope said. “Christians and Muslims must work together, as indeed they already do in many common undertakings, in order to guard against all forms of intolerance and to oppose all manifestations of violence.”

Drawing again on Nostra Aetate, he pointed to social justice, moral values and peace and freedom as themes that followers of both faiths could maintain and promote together.

Benedict also took the opportunity to underscore the need for reciprocity in religious freedom, by referring to a speech by Pope John Paul II.

“Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favor peace and agreement between peoples,” he said, quoting his predecessor.

The Pope ended his comments by emphasizing the benefits of Christian-Muslim collaboration.

“I pray with my whole heart that the merciful God will guide our steps along the paths of an ever more authentic mutual understanding,” he said

Accompanied by Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue, the Holy Father then greeted each of the 40 delegates.

Increasingly, Vatican officials and some Muslim leaders are seeing Benedict’s Regensburg speech and the subsequent controversy as a providential catalyst, both for improved dialogue and for overcoming religiously motivated violence.

Many of the world’s Muslims paid close attention to the Sept. 25 meeting with Muslim diplomats, which was broadcast live on Al Jazeera, the Arab television network. The Holy See also took the unusual step of immediately translating the Pope’s words in Arabic.

“His message went far, throughout the Arab and Islamic world,” Al-Ibrahim said. “All the Arab media, including Al Jazeera, have reported this in a very positive way and as far as I’m aware there’s been no negative reaction.”

Although the Pope has expressed his regret on several occasions for the offense caused by his remarks, some Muslims remain angry.

Al Jazeera reported Sept. 27 that worshippers in a mosque in Cairo angrily chanted “Down With the Pope, Down With the Vatican” after an imam belonging to the extremist Muslim Brotherhood claimed the Holy Father was part of a U.S.-Vatican crusade against Islam.

As the Register went to press, there were also rumors that al Qaeda was producing a video denouncing Benedict.

Ambassador Al-Ibrahim noted that some Muslims will never be satisfied and will try to feed on any negative sentiment. Such reactions, he said, “are also negative for us.”

Meanwhile, the Holy See has continued its efforts to communicate the content of Benedict’s Regensburg speech. Addressing the United Nations Sept. 27, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Holy See’s former minister for foreign affairs, said the lecture was meant to be a “boost and encouragement” for “positive and even self-critical dialogue both between religions and between modern reason and the faith of Christians.”

Some of the Muslim ambassadors who met with the Pope suggested intercultural rather than interreligious dialogue might be the better approach.

Benedict has already moved in that direction by integrating the Vatican’s offices for interreligious and intercultural matters. In March, he shifted oversight of interreligious dialogue to Cardinal Paul Poupard, who has served as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture since 1988.

Speaking to the Register Sept. 27, Albert Yelda, Iraq’s ambassador to the Holy See, called for the Holy Father to push for a major international meeting in Rome early next year, made up of scholars and government leaders.

“The discussion should not be about religion but how to live peacefully, side by side,” Yelda said.

The Iraqi ambassador also proposed a worldwide 24-hour media channel that promotes peace initiatives and peaceful co-existence.

“We Muslims and Christians are always saying we are religions of peace — well in that case, let’s show it,” he said. “There are too many channels spreading hatred.”


 Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.