VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Senior Vatican and Islamic scholars launched their first Catholic-Muslim Forum on Tuesday to improve relations between the world's two largest faiths.

The three-day meeting comes two years after Pope Benedict angered the Muslim world with a speech implying Islam was violent and irrational. In response, 138 Muslim scholars invited Christian churches to a new dialogue to foster mutual respect through a better understanding of each other's beliefs.

Công giáo và Hồi giáo đối thoại
In their manifesto, "A Common Word," the Muslims argued that both faiths shared the core principles of love of God and neighbor. The talks focus on what this means for the religions and how it can foster harmony between them.

The meeting, including an audience with Pope Benedict, is the group's third conference with Christians after talks with United States Protestants in July and Anglicans last month.

The session began with a moment of silence so that the Roman Catholic and Muslim groups, each comprising 28 delegates and advisors, could say their own prayers for its success.

"It was a very cordial atmosphere," one delegate said, asking not to be named because the meeting was closed.

After introductory remarks by delegation leaders Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, a Catholic and a Muslim scholar delivered lectures on how their faiths understand the concept of love of God.

Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told the French Catholic daily La Croix on Monday that the Forum "represents a new chapter in a long history" of often strained relations.

A Muslim delegate, Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan, wrote in the British daily Guardian that dialogue was "far more vital and imperative than our rivalries over the number of believers, our contradictory claims about proselytism, and sterile competition over exclusive possession of the truth."

Christianity is the world's largest religion with 2 billion followers, just over half of them Catholic. Islam is next with 1.3 billion believers.


The Common Word meeting takes place one week before Saudi King Abdullah visits the United Nations to promote a parallel interfaith dialogue that he launched last summer.

These and other meetings reflect a new urgency among Muslims in recent years, since the September 11 attacks, the "clash of civilisations" theory and Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech showed a widening gap between the two faiths.

The Vatican was at first cool to the Common Word initiative, arguing that talks among theologians had little meaning if they did not lead to greater respect for religious liberty in Muslim countries, where some Christian minorities face oppression.

"We can only have a real dialogue if all believers have equal rights everywhere, which is not the case in some Muslim countries," said one Catholic delegate who requested anonymity.

The agenda for the closed talks reflects the different views of the two delegations. Tuesday's talks centered on theological issues proposed by the Muslims, while Wednesday's meeting will focus on religious freedom issues the Vatican wants to raise.

The Vatican delegation includes bishops from minority Christian communities in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. Among the Muslims are converts from the United States, Canada and Britain. There are three Catholic and two Muslim women participating.

The delegations will have an audience with Pope Benedict on Thursday and hold a public discussion that afternoon, their only session open to the media.

The Catholic-Muslim Forum is due to meet every two years, alternately in Rome and in a Muslim country.