The gathering, part of the Vatican’s ongoing dialogue with Muslims, was the sixth such meeting between the two sides in more than a decade.
In a joint statement, participants in the seminar condemned the use of religion to justify violence -- a point that Benedict himself made in a controversial 2006 speech in Germany that sparked a firestorm of protest across the Muslim world. Indeed, the Vatican said the pope was "especially pleased" with the seminar's theme.
However, a statement by the eight-person Iranian delegation -- members of Iran’s Center for Interreligious Dialogue of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization -- appeared to play up the personal meeting with Benedict on April 30, indicating the delegation was seeking to spin the papal encounter for public-relations purposes back home. The Iranians officials, who included Mahdi Mostafavi, an adviser to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- seemed to suggest that the encounter with Benedict was much longer and more significant than it actually was.
Ahmad Rafat, a veteran Vatican-watcher and Rome correspondent for Radio Farda, said Iran "needs somehow to say they have the support and the collaboration of the Vatican in what they do." "But the Vatican is very cautious," he continued. "What the Vatican says in the official press statement published on its official website -- there is no mention of what the pope had said to the Iranian delegation.”
According to Rafat, the Iranian delegation wrote in their closing statement that the pope spoke to them for some time. “But afterwards, they quote him only saying ‘Thank you for the Koran, that is a very nice book and I’m glad to receive it,’" Rafat said. From the Iranian communique, "somehow you would think the pope had a long, long discussion with them -- even if nothing is quoted. The way they wrote for an Iranian audience, it looks like the pope told them something very important. But when they quote the pope, it’s only ‘thank you very much.’”
In their joint statement, the seminar participants agreed that "faith and reason are both gifts of God to mankind" and "intrinsically nonviolent." They added: "Neither reason nor faith should be used for violence; unfortunately, both of them have been sometimes misused to perpetuate violence."
The Roman Catholic and Iranian delegation also urged that interreligious dialogue avoid easy generalizations. “Christians and Muslims,” the statement says, “are called to mutual respect, thereby condemning derision of religious beliefs." The statement adds: "Religious traditions cannot be judged on the basis of a single verse or a passage present in their respective holy books."
In March, the Vatican set up a permanent office for dialogue with Islam. The move was partly in response to a call last year by 138 Muslim scholars from around the world for dialogue with Christians, especially Catholics.
The talks with the Iranians, which began under former Pope John Paul II, will continue at regular intervals every two years. The next gathering is due to take place in Tehran in 2010.