Pope invites envoys of Muslim countries to meet with him
VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI has invited Muslim envoys to meet with him at his summer residence Monday for what the Holy See says is urgently needed dialogue following the crisis ignited by his remarks on Islam and violence.
Turkey and Iran immediately said their representatives would attend.
Benedict's attempt to talk through the controversy comes as Christian-Muslim tensions rose in Indonesia over the executions of three Roman Catholic militants. Benedict had appealed to the mostly Muslim nation to spare the men.
Thousands of Muslim worshippers staged marches against Benedict in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sudanese capital on Friday. The Palestinian protesters waved green Hamas banners and denounced the pontiff as a "coward" and an "agent of the Americans." But much of the Middle East was quiet.
The Vatican announced the pope's invitations Friday, saying they were extended to ambassadors to the Holy See from largely Muslim countries for a meeting at the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.
Leaders of the Muslim community in Italy, who have advised the Italian government on politically delicate issues of Muslim integration in the largely Catholic country, also were invited.
Benedict's chief aide on inter-religious dialogue, French Cardinal Paul Poupard, also will participate.
Because of the Muslim holy day Friday, many diplomatic officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Turkey said its ambassador would attend, and Iran said its charge d'affaires would participate.
The invitation "will help clear the field of misunderstandings," Indonesia's ambassador, Bambang Prayitno, told the Apcom news agency.
Vatican Radio described the meeting as an "appointment totally dedicated to the urgency for dialogue today, between the cultures and religions of all the world, as Benedict XVI has repeatedly reiterated."
The brief Vatican announcement made no mention of the uproar over Benedict's remarks during a Sept. 12 speech to professors at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he used to teach theology.
During the speech, which explored the relationship between faith and reason, Benedict cited a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
The pope told faithful at Castel Gandolfo on Sunday that he was "deeply sorry" that Muslims were offended by the words, which he said did not reflect his own opinions. Later in the week, he told pilgrims his comments were open to misinterpretation and that he had "deep respect" for Islam.
Monday's meeting with the pontiff "is an invitation that we sought," said Hamza Roberto Piccardo, who is secretary of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, an umbrella group for Italy's Muslims that has a reputation for radicalism.
"From the beginning we have kept a reasonable profile, we have spoken of misunderstanding, of the fact that there was no ill will by the pope toward Muslims," Piccardo told The Associated Press by telephone.
After initial efforts by the papal spokesman and then his secretary of state to make clear Benedict's regret over the interpretation of his remarks, the pope has been speaking directly about the tensions in his public appearances.
Earlier in the week, papal envoys stationed in countries with large Muslim populations met with leaders to try to placate anger.
Mario Scialoja, president of the Muslim World League in Italy, predicted Monday's encounter would help end the controversy. "The reactions have gone beyond reasonable for a phrase that was taken out of context."
While Benedict is determined to repair the damage, he is also intent on working for religious freedom for tiny Catholic communities in Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia where Christians worship with difficulty.
"The creation of stable channels of communication between the Holy See and countries with Muslim majorities along with greater esteem can work to favor protection for Christian minorities," said Mario Marazziti, a spokesman for Sant'Egidio Community, a Catholic organization in Rome that works for inter-religious dialogue.
In largely Muslim Indonesia, Christians angered by the execution of three Catholic militants went on a rampage Friday, torching government buildings and looting Muslim-owned shops. The men were convicted of leading a Christian militia that launched attacks in 2000 that left at least 70 people dead.