New Pope can build bridges to Muslim world

The Muslim world will not be the new Pope's top priority, but there are important challenges for him in interfaith communications.

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Around the world people of all faiths follow the selection of a new Pope. The pomp and drama of change at the top of what may be the oldest continuous human organisation attracts all eyes.

The Muslim world will certainly take special interest in the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down at 85 years old because age was reducing his ability to carry out his duties in the highest office in the Roman Catholic faith.

The new Catholic leader Pope Francis, known until Wednesday as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, will surely be hoping to get off to a better start than his predecessor did in his relationship with the planet's 1.6 billion Muslims. In a 2006 speech at the University of Regensburg, in his native Germany, Benedict spoke of the need for a "dialogue of cultures" but managed also to muse about the balance, in Islam, between reason and submission to God. He also quoted an offensive comment by a 15th-century emperor.

Later, however, Benedict tried to distance himself from those views and did much for interfaith communication, including convening a three-day "summit" of Catholic and Muslim leaders, in the Vatican, in 2008. He also visited Turkey, Jordan and, during his last overseas trip in September 2012, Lebanon.

Relations with the Arab and Muslim world may not be a high priority for Pope Francis, who will begin his duties preoccupied with a seemingly endless series of sex scandals, fierce Vatican infighting and all the problems of running a multi-billion-dollar global bureaucracy.

And yet there are also pressing issues for him in relation to Muslims, although only about 6 million Christians live in the Middle East.

Throughout the West, a Pope who took the lead in discouraging prejudice and injustice towards Muslims could make an important contribution to a true dialogue of civilisations. Meanwhile Christian minorities have faced ill-treatment on occasion in Egypt and other Muslim countries. And there has been overt organised violence in Nigeria, where the two communities are nearly equal in size.

Multiple "dialogues of cultures", open and fair-minded, are essential in today's world. These range beyond religion alone, but religious leaders can be instrumental in setting the tone for such communication. The world will be watching Pope Francis.