Kishore Jayabalan, a former senior Vatican official who now heads the Rome office of the Acton Institute, a U.S.-based policy institute, says that Benedict "has never been" the type of Vatican official "to do things simply as a gesture. And there certainly are several elements of the Roman Curia [the Vatican's bureaucracy], and the Catholic Church, that are content to leave it at gestures and symbols. But Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope, is not one of them."
The preparatory talks are the result of a Muslim call for dialogue that followed a controversial 2006 speech by Benedict that seemed to link Islam with violence. That speech, in the German city of Regensburg, angered Muslims worldwide.
Benedict later tried to make amends when he visited Turkey and prayed in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul together with its imam. A year later, a Jordanian prince, Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, brought together 138 Muslim scholars and leaders from 43 countries to issue an unprecedented open letter to the pope urging peace.
The current talks are the result of that letter, which stated that "the very survival of the world itself" might depend on dialogue between the two faiths.
Part of the discussions is certain to focus on the substance of the gathering to take place later this year.
Jayabalan says that going into the talks this week, the two sides seem to have very different ideas as to what the meeting should address. He says that while the Muslim leaders appeared to want to focus on theological issues, the Vatican seems more interested in discussing social and political problems related to faith.
"The Muslim leaders seem to want to talk about theology, who is God, who is our neighbor, and very, I would say, apolitical issues," Jayabalan says. "The Holy See's concerns had been much more about the social and political circumstances on the ground: things having to do with religious freedom, the use of religion to incite violence; obviously jihadists, terrorism, the minority status of Christians and other religions in Islamic countries -- I think those were the issues that were the crux of the Holy See's concerns. And they still remain that way."
How the two sides go about bridging that divide is unclear. Some of the Muslim leaders may not want the meeting to focus on issues such as terrorism, though Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini of the Italian Islamic Religious Community says religious violence is likely to be on the agenda. Pallavicini is taking part in today's talks.
In Jayabalan's opinion, such issues might be discussed by looking at history, in particular at how Catholicism coped with the European Enlightenment. That period, in the 17th and 18th centuries, ushered in many changes that mark the modern Western world, including the prominence of science and the ideas of political liberty.
"The bridge between the theological/philosophical discussion and the social/political one might take on a historical aspect, as well," he says. "They might have to discuss how Christianity -- and particularly the Catholic Church -- dealt with the Enlightenment, dealt with these new ideas of religious freedom and political liberty, which the Islamic world does seem to have done yet."
Besides Pallavicini, the Muslim delegation at the talks includes a Libyan, a Turk, a Briton, and a Jordanian. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, a Frenchman who heads the Vatican's Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is leading the Vatican's delegation.