Christians and Muslims begin landmark dialogue in Vatican

Theological event to culminate in the meeting with pope as Christian leaders and Muslim clerics come together.

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Vatican city // An unprecedented meeting between Christian leaders and Muslim clerics representing hundreds of Islamic organisations from around the world kicked off yesterday in preparation for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow. The meeting, which is hosted by the Vatican, is the first Muslim-Catholic initiative to reach such high level talks. Delegates were locked behind closed doors yesterday in discussions. They will conclude the conference with an official announcement after the meeting with the pope.

"They started closed door talks from a theological perspective about the love of God and love of neighbour," said Tareq Elgawhary, a spokesman for the Common Word delegation. "The talks today were pretty deep and serious, which is the reason they wanted to keep the sessions closed to the public." The effort started with the Common Word, an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, a month after he made a controversial speech in Regensburg, linking Islam to violence as he quoted from a medieval passage, that offended many Muslim leaders.

Other events, such as the cartoons published in Denmark lampooning the Prophet Mohammed, led to the increase in the number of signatories to the Common Word. Initially 183 Muslim scholars and clerics sought an open dialogue with Christian leaders. But hundreds of other Muslim and Christian leaders signed on in time. Earlier this year, delegates met at Yale University and Cambridge University to agree on talking points for the Vatican meeting.

Last week, at the eighth General Conference of Islamic Call meeting in Tripoli, more than 460 Islamic organisations and associations representing various continents and constituents officially endorsed the Common Word. The Vatican meeting is also unique because Sunni Islamic tradition eschews hierarchy and representation by a single organisation. Common Word managed to build an unprecedented consensus among Muslim leaders.

"It is difficult to find any historical precedent to this 'ijmaa'," said Ibrahim Kalin, a professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, one of the main parties spearheading Common Word. "Ijmaa" is an Islamic concept of consensus, which is used in legal scholarship, but not as a consensus for political or an interfaith dialogue.

"So this is very unique in Islamic history. But the idea is clear: there is consensus from Muslims on Bosnia and Malaysia. There are Arab, Turkish, Persian, Sunnis and Shiites, scholars and clerics," Prof Kalin said. Italy is one of the few remaining countries in the world that does not officially recognise Islam as a religion, making it difficult for the estimated one million Muslims to build mosques and receive religious support from the country.

One of the main points on the agenda at this meeting will be to create a Judeo-Christian-Muslim forum to advance the current "Judeo-Christian" dialogue that does not include Islam. "We'd like to see progress on that front, to make a Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition as part of the whole Abrahamic tradition," said Prof Kalin. He hoped the forum would provide a body that can address interfaith conflicts, such as violence against Christian minorities in some Muslim countries, and events like the Danish cartoons, which triggered a chain reaction of outrage, violence and an economic boycott of Denmark throughout the Muslim world.

"Christians and Muslims are 55 per cent of the globe," said Prof Kalin. "Unless there's peace between the communities, there can be no hope." While the topics on the agenda include Islamic extremism, which he said drowned the voices of the moderate majority, participants will also discuss the lack of spirituality in many Western countries. "Secular extremism is an issue that has to be dealt with by everyone, whether religious or secular. From family to youth and society's structure, all these things pertain to basic ethical and moral values that are important to any social order, no matter what religion," said Prof Kalin.

Young people in Europe hardly attend religious services, and some studies suggest the majority of Europeans are secular, an issue that is of significant concern to The Vatican.