A team of Muslim scholars arrived in Rome Monday ahead of a landmark meeting with top Catholic officials.
The Muslim scholars, who will meet Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican officials for a series of talks starting Tuesday, hope the Nov. 4-6 meeting will help defuse ongoing tensions between Islam and Christianity.
"It is clear that the time has come to open debate on the common theological underpinnings and the shared foundations of the two religions," wrote Professor Tariq Ramadan, president of the European Muslim Network (EMN), in a commentary appearing in the U.K.-based Guardian. Ramadan is part of the delegation of Muslim scholars taking part in the first round of interfaith talks with the Vatican.
"Our task is not to create a new religious alliance against the 'secularized' and 'immoral' world order, but to make a constructive contribution to the debate, to prevent the logic of economics and war from destroying what remains of our common humanity," the Brussels-based professor continued.
"Our task will be to assume our respective and shared responsibilities, and to commit ourselves to working for a more just world, in full respect of beliefs and liberties."
It has been over two years since Catholic-Muslim relations notably soured following Pope Benedict XVI's speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor's criticism of Islam, linking it to violence.
One year earlier, violent protest broke out in Muslim countries after a Danish newspaper printed a series of cartoons of Islam's most revered prophet, Mohammad. Over 50 people died in the ensuing deadly clashes, which some say could have been averted had Christians and Muslims jointly denounced the violence.
"We should develop a crisis reaction mechanism so if there is another cartoon crisis, we could get together and make a joint statement," said Ibrahim Kalin, an Islamic scholar from Turkey who is spokesman for the group attending this week's closed-doors talks, according to Reuters.
Led by Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 24 Muslim scholars attending the Nov. 4-6 gathering will represent the Common Word Group, a broad coalition of Muslim leaders and scholars who are pursuing dialogue between the world's two largest religions.
Since the group issued The Common Word Manifesto last October, a total 275 prominent Muslims have signed the document urging Christian churches to reach mutual understanding to safeguard global security, based on shared principles of loving God and their neighbors.
Common Word delegates have also met this year with a number of Protestant leaders, proposing regular dialogue sessions, student exchanges, suggested reading lists and other ideas to help Christians and Muslims learn more about each other.
At the most recent Muslim-Christian conference, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, 17 prominent Muslims met with 19 Christian leaders and denounced the persecution of Iraqi Christians, saying that there was no justification in Islam for the attacks.
During their Oct. 12-15 meeting, participants addressed issues such as the global economic crisis, interfaith education, different understandings of scriptures, shared moral values, respect for foundational figures in the respective faiths, religious freedom, and the persecution of minorities in Iraq.
Pope Benedict, who will address the Rome gathering, is expected to deplore prejudice against Muslim minorities and immigrants in Europe while also calling on Muslims to help defend Christian minorities persecuted or endangered in the Middle East, including Iraq.
At the talks, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican's top interfaith body, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, will lead the Catholic delegation comprised of 24 Vatican officials and Catholic experts on Islam, including Miguel Angel Aysuso Guixot, president of Italy's top Islamic studies institute, the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI).
The team of delegates will meet on the theme of "Love of God and love of neighbor" and will address theological-spiritual themes on the first day. On the second day, they will turn to "Human dignity," exploring issues related to human rights, religious freedom, and religious respect, possibly alluding to the freedom to convert and change religions. And on Thursday, the delegates will have an audience with Pope Benedict before holding a public discussion session that afternoon.
The gathering concludes Thursday.