- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI sought to open a new chapter in the Roman Catholic Church’s strained dialogue with Islam yesterday by saying it is “imperative” that both Muslims and Christians shun violence and “face up to numerous challenges together.”

The German pontiff made his latest conciliatory remarks in an address to ambassadors of Muslim-majority countries accredited to the Vatican, all of whom attended the meeting held at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer place in the cool Alban Hills south of Rome.

Nearly two-dozen countries were represented at the meeting with the pontiff, including Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen. Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The only envoy absent was the ambassador of Sudan, a hard-line radical state.

Benedict made no direct reference to the controversy that led to protests by angry Muslims around the world after he quoted what were interpreted as remarks offensive to Islam in a speech Sept. 12 during a pastoral visit to Germany, saying the reason for the meeting was “well known.”

This was the fourth time the leader of more than 1 billion Catholics has expressed regret at the response to his quoting 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos, who said the prophet Muhammad commanded “to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In the wake of the speech, churches were burned, Muslim crowds burned an effigy of the pope and an Italian nun was slain in Somalia.

There is no future for peace without dialogue between Christians and Muslims who must learn “to work together to avoid every form of intolerance and oppose every manifestation of violence,” Benedict said yesterday, speaking in French.

At the end of the 30-minute address, some were satisfied.

“I pray to almighty God the crisis will be behind us,” said Iraqi Ambassador Albert Edward Ismail Yelda. “We need to sit together — Muslims, Christians, Jews and the rest of the world, the rest of religions, in order to find common ground for peaceful coexistence.”

“I think this meeting has resolved many problems … we can close this controversy,” said Khalil Altoubat, a member of the Italian Muslim community’s liaison group with the government.

But the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Cairo-based al-Azhar, one of the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious seats of religious studies, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as saying they still wanted a “clear apology” from the pope.

The Vatican immediately made available translations of the speech in English, Italian and Arabic and in an unusual gesture announced that the Arabic version would be printed on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper.

The diplomats greeted the pope with tumultuous applause when he entered the Swiss Room of the papal palace, where popes traditionally spend the summer to avoid the heat of Rome.

It is the “duty” of both Christian and Muslim religious and political leaders “to act in this way,” the pope, known for his unbending conservative views, said.

The pontiff reiterated his “esteem and deep respect for Muslim believers,” quoting from a speech he had made to Muslim leaders while on another visit to Germany in August 2005.

He also recalled the “memorable speech” that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made to young Muslims during a visit to the Moroccan city of Casablanca in which the Polish pontiff said that “respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all fields, above all with regard to fundamental freedoms and most especially for religious freedom, which favors peace and understanding between peoples.”

Security for Benedict has been stepped up dramatically since his remarks angered Muslim radicals. Vatican sources say he may have decided to prolong his stay at Castel Gandolfo at the request of Vatican security advisers and delay his return to the Apostolic Palace in St. Peter’s Square, where he spends most of the year.

It is “imperative” that Christians and Muslims “face up to numerous challenges together,” such as “the defense and promotion of the human being and the numerous rights that derive from that,” Benedict said.

The pope said he prayed that “merciful God guide our countries along the paths of reciprocal and always more true understanding.”

Benedict mingled with the ambassadors after the speech, exchanging words with each of them. The meeting was beamed live to millions of Muslims around the globe on the Qatari channel Al Jazeera.

• The article is based in part on wire service reports.

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