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Pope calls for dialogue with Muslims

Updated 9/25/2006 9:21 PM ET

By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY

ROME — In a meeting the Vatican says was
unprecedented in its scope, Pope Benedict XVI
told 20 Muslim ambassadors Monday that he is
committed to a positive dialogue with Islamic
leaders and "our future" depends on the
development of strong relations between the
two faiths.

The meeting, held at the pope's summer
residence just south of Rome, came nearly two
weeks after Benedict sparked worldwide
protests by quoting a 14th-century letter that
said the prophet Mohammed "spread by the
sword the faith he preached"' and his teachings
brought things "evil and inhuman."

The pontiff had twice attempted to quell the
controversy in public remarks before Monday's
meeting. Each time, he stressed that the quote
was not an expression of his personal opinion,
but he stopped short of the full apology demanded by many Muslims.

In a statement, the Vatican called Monday's meeting at Castel Gandolfo with ambassadors of Muslim nations and the Arab League,
plus representatives of Italy's Muslim community, unprecedented. The statement said the meeting was the largest between a sitting
pope and Islamic leaders.

    The pontiff spoke briefly in French before greeting and speaking to each
    representative. Benedict did not specifically mention his controversial
    statements Sept. 12 at Germany's Regensburg University.

    He alluded to the speech when he began his remarks by saying, "The
    circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well-known."

    This time, Benedict quoted himself. He referred to a speech he gave last
    year at World Youth Day in Germany in which he told Muslim leaders that
    dialogue between the two faiths cannot be "reduced to an optional extra."

    That dialogue "is, in fact, a vital necessity on which in large measure our
    future depends," Benedict said.

In his call for "reciprocity in all fields," including religious freedom, Benedict was quoting his predecessor, John Paul II, who was
known for his efforts to increase interfaith dialogue. Before the controversy surrounding Benedict's remarks erupted, that topic had
been a plank of the Holy See's dialogue with some Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims cannot worship freely.

Saudi Arabia was not represented at Monday's meeting. Leaders from many other Muslim states were on hand. Among them: Egypt,
Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Turkey.

Iraqi representative Albert Edward Ismail Yelda said the pope's new gesture would be enough to put the issue to rest. "The Holy
Father indicated a profound respect for Islam," Ismail Yelda said in televised remarks after the 35-minute session with Benedict. "It is
now the time to put what happened behind all of us and to begin building a bridge" between the two faiths.
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Pope Benedict XVI meets Muslim envoys Monday at his summer residence in Castel
Gandolfo, outside Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI greets an unidentified Muslim envoy Monday
during a meeting at his summer residence outside Rome.