- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — Unease with Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to Islam has led a U.S. Muslim group to decline joining in an interfaith event with him later this week.

Several other U.S. Muslim leaders expressed similar concerns about the pope, but pledged to participate in the Washington gathering, saying the two faiths should do everything possible to improve relations.

“Our going there is more out of respect for the Catholic Church itself,” said Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, which interprets Islamic law. “Popes come and go, but the church is there.”

Mr. Siddiqi, co-chairman of the West Coast Muslim-Catholic Dialogue, is among the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu leaders scheduled to meet Benedict tomorrow at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

But Salam al Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles, said the event seemed “more ceremonial than substantive” and his organization would not participate. He said he was disappointed that no time was made in the pope’s six-day trip for even a brief private meeting with U.S. Muslim leaders.

“It would have been a good opportunity for him to have a dialogue,” Mr. al Marayati said.

The pope has been praised by supporters for his frankness in approaching Islam and interfaith dialogue in general, but critics have called him insensitive.

Muslims in many nations reacted angrily when the pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor connecting Islam with violence in a 2006 speech at Germany’s Regensburg University. Tensions eased after Benedict traveled to Turkey that same year, visiting Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque.

The pope was applauded for organizing a Nov. 4-6 meeting in Rome with Muslim religious leaders and scholars, as part of a push for more dialogue between Catholics and Muslims.

But many Muslims said the pontiff insulted them on Easter in St. Peter’s Basilica, when he baptized Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born commentator who has criticized what he called the “inherent” violence in Islam. Islamic leaders said the prominence of the ceremony, not the conversion itself, was troubling.

“It’s true that some of the gestures, some of the statements make us uncomfortable, and we feel badly about it,” said Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest communal group for American Muslims. “But our challenge is to not let those challenges hamper progress.”

Mr. Syeed will attend the meeting tomorrow.

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