Muslim Leaders Visit Pope for Dialogue

Pope Benedict XVI welcomes Muslim diplomats and dignitaries to his summer home near Rome. Benedict tells them that "our future" depends on dialogue between the two faiths. The visit was part of an effort by the pope to calm the anger resulting from his recent comments on Islam and violence.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Pope Benedict the XVI met today with ambassadors from Muslim nations, along with Italy's Islamic leaders, in a further effort to diffuse the row over the row over his statements on Islam.

Nearly two weeks ago the pope quoted a medieval text, asserting that Islam is being "spread by the sword." Now the Vatican is facing its most serious international crisis in decades.

The meeting took place at the pope's summer residence south of Rome, and NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us now from Rome. Sylvia, Vatican television broadcast this meeting live. What did the pope say addressing these Muslim leaders?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, speaking French, which is the traditional language of diplomacy, the pope, first of all, reiterated his deep esteem and respect for Islam and Muslim believers. He did not dwell on the specific incident that had caused the uproar, but he cited a document from the Second Vatican Council which he called the Magna Carte of Islamic-Christian dialogue. And he pointed out that Christians and Muslims worship the single God.

He said our future depends on dialogue, and said Christian and Muslim believers must reject all manifestations of violence. He said dialogue is vital to counter relativism and to face together the many challenges facing humans in the contemporary world. He insisted that the dialogue be frank and respectful of each other's differences, and he stressed the need for reciprocity in all fields, especially religious freedom.

MONTAGNE: Who exactly attended this meeting?

POGGIOLI: There were 22 ambassadors to the Holy See from primarily Muslim countries, and 19 Muslims representing various Islamic institutions in Italy.

The atmosphere was - it certainly appeared to be very, very cordial. The pope was welcomed into the reception hall with a round of applause. And after he finished speaking, Benedict went to each of his guests, shook hands and spoke briefly. There were broad smiles, and everyone appeared to be very pleased and very relaxed.

MONTAGNE: Well, it was hoped that this meeting would bring a sense of closure to this whole experience, this whole controversy. Have Catholic-Muslim relations now been repaired?

POGGIOLI: Well, the anger and the size of the protests in the Muslim world had appeared to be diminishing even before today's meeting. There had been four papal statements of regret that Benedict's words had been misunderstood, coupled with an intense Vatican diplomatic offensive. And the reaction of the Islamic envoys here in Rome invited to the encounter was overwhelmingly positive.

What the Vatican had been most worried about was losing contact with Muslim moderates in the political and religious spheres who had reacted with what the Holy See saw as a surprising degree of criticism of the pope's remarks. Muslim moderates now appear to have put the incident behind them.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, this pope does not share with his predecessor, John Paul II, the late John Paul II, enthusiasm for inter-religious encounters, especially with Muslims. What sort of dialogue does he envision with Islam?

POGGIOLI: Well, Benedict has made clear that he wants what he calls a frank, cultural and political dialogue with Islam, rather than a theological religious exchange. The Pope wants concrete results. He's pressing for religious freedom for Christians in majority Muslim countries. This is what the Vatican calls reciprocity.

For example, since there are many mosques in Europe, the biggest one is here in Rome, the Holy See says why can't there be Catholic churches in places like Saudi Arabia?

And Benedict is particularly concerned about death penalties for those who convert, about recent burnings of churches in Nigeria, killings of priests in Turkey and the execution of three Catholic militants in Indonesia last week. Benedict had appealed for the men's lives to be spared.

And he feels that the need to sever the link between religion and violence is also very important here in Europe, where the friction between Islam and Western values is most intense.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thank you. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, speaking from Rome.

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