Catholic and Muslim representatives plan to meet in Rome in the spring to start a "historic" dialogue between the faiths after relations were soured by Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 comments about Islam and holy war, Vatican officials said.
Benedict proposed the encounter as part of his official response to an open letter sent to him and other Christian leaders in October by 138 Muslim scholars from around the world. The letter urged Christians and Muslims to develop their common ground of belief in one God.
Three representatives of the Muslim scholars will come to Rome in February or March to prepare for the meeting, the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano this weekend.
He did not give a date for the larger meeting, except to say it would take place in the spring.
The agenda, he said, would cover three main topics: respect for the dignity of each person, inter-religious dialogue based on reciprocal understanding, and instruction of tolerance among the young.
"The meeting with a delegation of some of the 138 Muslims, planned for Rome next spring, is in a certain sense historic," Tauran was quoted by L'Osservatore as saying.
Benedict angered Muslims with a speech on faith and reason in September 2006 in Germany in which he cited a Medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
The pope later said that he was "deeply sorry" over the reactions to his remarks and that they did not reflect his own opinions. The Vatican has been working ever since to improve relations with moderate Islam.
Thirty-eight Muslim scholars initially wrote to Benedict soon after his 2006 speech, thanking him for his clarifications and his calls for dialogue. But the Vatican never officially responded to that initiative, and a year later the number of signatories of a new letter had swelled to 138.
In the letter, the Muslim scholars, muftis and intellectuals draw parallels between Islam and Christianity and their common focus on love for God and love for one's neighbor. They also note that such a focus is found in Judaism.
"As Muslims and in obedience to the Holy Quran, we ask Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions," the letter says. "Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us."
Noting that Christians and Muslims make up an estimated 55 percent of the world population, the scholars conclude that improving relations is the best way to bring peace to the world.
Laying the groundwork
Church leaders and analysts have praised the initiative, and Benedict met with one of the 138 signatories in late October at an interfaith peace meeting in Naples.
But that meeting was somewhat soured when some Muslim participants complained in a communique that Benedict had neglected to publicly comment on the open letter and over published comments by Tauran about the unwillingness of Muslims to critically discuss the Quran.
The Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, followed up within a month with a formal letter on behalf of Benedict to one of the 138 signatories, Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, inviting representatives of the scholars to meet with the pope.
The prince, who is a special envoy to Jordan's King Abdullah II, responded by confirming the agenda of the meeting and saying three representatives of the scholars would travel to Rome in February or March to lay its groundwork.