Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pope has unannounced talk with Muslim tolerance campaigner
Sat Nov 11, 6:28 PM ET

A leading Muslim academic and campaigner against religious hatred revealed that he had held a half-hour private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

The encounter, which had not been announced in advance by the Vatican, took place in the pope's private study at the request of Algerian scholar Mustapha Cherif.

"The pope listened to me with great attention, great goodness, and there was a proper exchange," said Cherif, who teaches at Algiers University and helped to found a French-based group for dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

He had asked the head of the Roman Catholic Church for a meeting several months ago, before remarks made by Benedict in Regensburg in Germany in September seen as linking Islam and violence, which provoked uproar among many in the Muslim world.

Since then the pope has made several calls for dialogue between the faiths ahead of a four-day visit to Turkey, his first official trip to a Muslim country, starting on November 28.

The 50-year-old Muslim scholar said the two men had discussed the controversial speech, adding that he himself had raised the issue "to respond to questions posed by his speech," mainly about how freedom, reason and violence is viewed by the Koran.

"Dialogue between religions is the decisive factor" making it possible to "drive back misunderstanding, fanaticism, to recall our common base, to relaunch consideration of our differences and common challenges," he said. The Algerian academic told AFP he had proposed the holding of an international Islamo-Christian conference to boost the campaign against racial and religious hatred.

Other themes would be "making the international community aware of the reprehensible nature of offending ... sacred symbols of religions .. in the respect of the right to freedom of expression" and "increasing Islamo-Christian dialogue and friendship groups."

Benedict "told me that he fully shares our worries and backs these noble aims," Cherif said.
My approach is that of a theologian in a quest for dialogue, who refuses polemics," said the academic, author of several books including "Islam and Tolerance."

Benedict "told me that he considers Islam as a great religion, and that we must witness together the religious dimension of existence."

The pope rejected "the logic of a clash of civilisations," he said.

At this unprecedented meeting, two weeks before Benedict's journey to Turkey, Cherif raised his remarks in Regensburg, which have cast a shadow over the visit.

"I told him that just like the Gospel, the Koran asks believers to forgive, to have patience and to be merciful, and resorting to collective violence is only authorised in cases of aggression, in strict conditions, as Saint Agustine used to say," he said.

"He approved in his wisdom the fact that Christians and Muslims should not be competitors but friends and allies."

There was no statement from the Vatican either before or after the meeting, during which Cherif gave the pope the original of a letter sent in 1863 by the Algerian Emir Abdeldkader to archbishop Pavie of Algiers.

In it the emir explained to Pavie, who had thanked him in an earlier letter for saving the lives of Catholic priests, that such an act was part of the practice of Islam.

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