Muslim leaders summoned to Pope's fourth 'apology'

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The Independent Online

In the most extraordinary initiative of his papacy to date, Benedict XVI yesterday called 22 ambassadors from Islamic countries to the Vatican and told them of his determination to relaunch the dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

The meeting, carried live in its entirety by al-Jazeera as well as by Vatican television, was the Pope's latest attempt to draw a line under the fierce controversy that has raged since he quoted a Byzantine emperor describing Islam as "evil and inhuman", and the Prophet Mohamed as favouring conversion by force.

One Vatican expert conceded that the "earthquake" caused by those slighting references had "undoubtedly done damage to the Pope's image and his credibility in some parts of the Muslim world," but said yesterday's speech "will repair the damage and begin healing the wounds".

It was the fourth occasion on which Pope Benedict has attempted to eat his words since the fateful address to professors and students of Regensburg University in Germany a fortnight ago. Those words have became so notorious that yesterday he did not even spell out why he and 40 Muslim delegates - the remainder representing Islamic organisations in Italy - were gathered together in the hall of the Swiss Guards at his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

"The circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well known," he told them. "In this particular context, I should like to reiterate today all the esteem and the profound respect that I have for Muslim believers."

He then reminded his audience of what he called the "Magna Carta of Muslim-Christian dialogue" - the words of the Second Vatican Council of 1965, which summed up the reasons why "the Church looks upon Muslims with respect" - including the fundamental fact that the Allah worshipped by Muslims is "the one God living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, Creator of heaven and earth".

The Pope felt obliged to go back to basics yesterday because it is not only Islamist extremists who have been making hay with his words and person over the past weeks. In Italy, normally the most reflexively loyal of nations to the Pope, the silence among top politicians after the Regensburg address was deafening. Walter Veltroni, post-Communist mayor of Rome, ostentatiously held a meeting of leaders of different religious communities, stressing his distance from the Pope's remarks.

Commentators went back to the early days of Benedict's papacy, identifying a lack of enthusiasm for inter-faith dialogue compared to Pope John Paul II, noting how he had sent the man responsible for keeping the dialogue going, the British Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, into diplomatic exile in Cairo.

And in the eyes of some, the Pope only made matters worse when he started apologising. Popes do not apologise; they are supposed to be infallible. Grave damage to the papal image within the Church was foreseen.

Yesterday's meeting therefore, though lasting only 30 minutes, was a vital one. "It was a very important initiative," Marco Politi, Vatican affairs correspondent of La Repubblica, said of the meeting. "Here starts a new chapter."

Gerard O'Connell, a Vatican affairs analyst, said: "He conveyed very clearly that his interest was to build bridges, not to destroy them. He's realised he's had to clarify where he stands on inter-religious dialogue... he's stated clearly that we have common religious values."

Yet the Pope also underlined the need for "reciprocity in all spheres", quoting the words of his predecessor to 80,000 Islamic youths in Morocco in 1985 - meaning among other things the right of Christians to worship publicly in Saudi Arabia, for example, a right they currently do not possess.