VATICAN CITY (AFP) — The Vatican Tuesday opened historic inter-faith talks with top Muslim leaders, two years after Pope Benedict XVI sparked outrage among Muslims for a speech seen as linking Islam with violence.
The Holy See's first-ever Catholic-Muslim forum opens "a new chapter in the long history" of dialogue between the two faiths, the head of the 29-member Catholic delegation, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, told the French Catholic daily La Croix.
Benedict will meet with the delegations on Thursday.
The Muslim side is led by the mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, whose spokesman Yahya Pallavicini told AFP the delegates "represent no state and no ideological tendency."
Tunisian academic Adnane Mokrani, a member of the Muslim delegation, said on Italian public radio RAI that the talks should be transformed from closed door dialogue to an open forum.
The delegation includes Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, an outspoken and controversial Muslim figure in Europe, along with Aref Ali Nayed of the Islamic Centre of Strategic Studies in Amman, Jordan, and Iranian ayatollah Seyyed Mustafa Manegheg Damad.
Ramadan, in a commentary published in France's Le Monde newspaper Tuesday, said that the need for "constructive dialogue on the values and the common goals is more important than rivalry on the size of the adherents and conversion...
"We have to start," this, he underscored, saying: "the fear that permeates the present sometimes makes us view the past with bias."
Ramadan said the two sides had to work together on forging responses to the "social, cultural and economic questions of our time."
Several women in the delegation include Ingrid Mary Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary in the United States.
The Vatican seminar was organised in response to a Muslim call for dialogue issued in October 2006, a month after Benedict's controversial speech in Regensburg, Germany.
The call titled "A Common World" was signed by 138 Muslim religious figures and scholars.
The Regensburg lecture sparked days of sometimes violent protests in Muslim countries, prompting the head of the Roman Catholic Church to say that he was "deeply sorry" for any offence and to attribute Muslim anger to an "unfortunate misunderstanding."
The closed-door discussions at the Vatican will focus Tuesday on "God's love" and Wednesday on "loving your neighbour," a theme that touches on two Vatican priorities, human rights and religious freedom.
The Vatican is however cautious over opening a purely theological dialogue, with Tauran telling La Croix: "We'll see ... how far we can go together."
Christians and Muslims differ in their concept of God, and follow "different paths to reach this God," said Tauran, the Roman Catholic Church's pointman for dialogue with Islam.