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Catholics, Muslims Vow To Fight Terror, Protect Minority Rights

Benedict (right) and Ceric at the Vatican forum
(RFE/RL) -- Two years after Pope Benedict XVI angered Muslims by suggesting that Islam is inherently violent, Catholic and Muslim leaders from around the world have now vowed to fight terrorism and protect religious rights.

Given the worldwide uproar caused by Benedict's 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, it might be hard to believe that some Muslims are now praising the pope for his critical remarks.

But that's just what Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-based Islamic scholar, said this week as the historic Catholic-Muslim was getting under way in Rome. In an article in the French daily "Le Monde," he said that while Benedict's Regensburg speech "shocked Muslims," it resulted in Muslim scholars and clerics from around the world joining up to issue the "Common Word" letter to the pope last year, which affirmed that Muslims and Catholics share the same God, "who calls on us to respect human dignity and liberty."

That letter, signed by 138 Muslim leaders from every branch of Islam, called for Muslim-Christian dialogue based on the shared principles of love of God and neighbor. It also led to the creation of the Catholic-Muslim forum, which met for the first time this week at the Vatican.

Benedict, addressing the gathering on its third and final day, said he sees important progress.

"This gathering is a clear sign of our mutual esteem and our desire to listen respectfully to one another," the pope said.

"I can assure you that I have prayerfully followed the progress of your meeting, conscious that it represents one more step along the way toward greater understanding between Muslims and Christians within the framework of other regular encounters, which the Holy See promotes with various Muslim groups."

In a joint 15-point statement issued after the forum, the 58 participating scholars and leaders (29 from each faith) pledged to work to combat religious-inspired violence to defend the freedom of minority religions. The statement was issued during at a public seminar where Benedict and the head of the Muslim delegation, Bosnia's Grand Mufti Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, clasped hands and embraced.

The statement described the talks as "warm and convivial," adding, "We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all."

In a passage that recalled the Vatican's long-standing defense of Christians in places like Saudi Arabia, where they cannot openly worship, the statement said religious minorities are "entitled to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subjected to any form of mockery or ridicule."

One Catholic leader at the talks expressed optimism that churches would some day be built in Saudi Arabia. But Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a U.S.-based Islamic scholar, told the pope, "Muslims do not allow an aggressive proselytizing in our midst that would destroy our faith in the name of freedom."

The declaration also spoke about avoiding mockery. That passage appeared to reflect Muslim concern about the publication in a Danish newspaper of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that in 2005 sparked violent protests in the Islamic world.

The forum is due to meet again in two years in a Muslim country yet to be named.