VATICAN CITY // An historic meeting between Muslim and Roman Catholic scholars at the Vatican concluded yesterday with a joint declaration calling for an end to violence in the name of religion, respect for both faiths and a commitment to help solve international crises together.
The religious leaders agreed to meet again in two years in a Muslim country and to consider creating a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee.
Their 15-point final declaration also called for the establishment of an ethical international financial system, equal rights for men and women and the need for each religion to disseminate accurate information about the other.
The Vatican seminar was organised in response to a Muslim call for dialogue – known as the Common Word – issued in Oct 2006, a month after Pope Benedict XVI delivered a controversial speech in Regensburg, Germany, which was widely perceived to have linked Islam with violence.
Each delegation to the meeting included 24 participants and five advisers.
The meeting was held at a time of increased interfaith activity, often led by key figures in the Arab world.
Later this week King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the country's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, will host a two-day interfaith summit in New York.
The event is expected to be attended by up to 30 heads of states – including the outgoing US president, George W Bush, and King Juan Carlos of Spain – who will discuss how to bridge cultures and faiths. It follows similar interfaith events attended by Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders in Madrid and at Yale University in the US earlier this year. Last night Muslim delegates at the Vatican event spoke of the importance of the historic meeting.
"The Pope was very gracious in receiving us, and in quoting our Prophet and recognising his message," said Yousef Hamza, an Islamic scholar from Al Ain, who is now the director of the Zaytuna Institute, an Islamic education centre, in Berkeley, California. "The Common Word initiative was born out of a sense of urgency," said Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, and the president of the Islamic Society of North America, at the announcement of declaration.
"We feel a sense of shame that our sacred faith is the reason or the justification for the conflict [between Islam and Christianity]. Sceptics might say that religious people are the least suited to resolve these issues because we created them, but every day, people engage in acts of piety, generosity and through institutions made for that purpose, through love of God and love of neighbour. We are committed to understand why that is sometimes not expressed."
The final declaration also called on people from both faiths to "to work for an ethical financial system in which the regulatory mechanisms consider the situation of the poor and disadvantaged". "We call upon the privileged of the world to consider the plight of those afflicted most severely by the current crisis in food production and distribution, and ask religious believers of all denominations and all people of goodwill to work together to alleviate the suffering of the hungry and to eliminate its causes."
The declaration also said that "we commit ourselves jointly to ensuring that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women". It addressed concerns over the treatment of religious symbols, such as the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed published in Danish newspapers. It called for respect for "founding figures and symbols" considered sacred. These should not be "subject to any form of mockery or ridicule".
It also tackled concerns about religious extremism: "We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion."
Acknowledging that young people living in multicultural societies will be important figures in the future of both faiths, the declaration said it was important that they be well-informed about other cultures and religions.
"Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion," it said. After the Common Word was issued, delegates met at Yale and Cambridge universities to agree on talking points for this week's Vatican meeting.
Last week, at the eighth General Conference of Islamic Call meeting in Tripoli, Libya, more than 460 Islamic organisations and associations representing various continents and constituents endorsed the Common Word. The Vatican meeting was unprecedented not only because it brought Muslims and Catholic leaders together, but also because the Islamic tradition shies away from hierarchy and representation of Muslims by any one organisation.
The Common Word managed to build a consensus among Muslim leaders. In another show of unity in July, King Abdullah convened talks between Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics in Madrid, where religious and political leaders discussed ways to reduce religious intolerance.
The conference came less than a year after King Abdullah met the Pope in the Vatican that was criticised by some religious hardliners in the Kingdom. The Saudi monarch's inclusive approach also reportedly attracted threats from al Qa'eda. A few months later in August, scholars from across the faiths met again.
This time at Yale, where more than 150 religious leaders unanimously agreed to sign a resolution on similarities of faith. They agreed to respect one another's "sacred symbols" and to preach of commonality. The attempts at dialogue have been praised by religious and political leaders, but many have warned that there are many hurdles to be overcome before the faiths can reach accord.