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Muslims, Vatican Hold Talks Ahead of Anticipated Historic Event

A group of Muslim scholars who have called for greater dialogue with Christians began two days of talks Tuesday with Vatican officials to prepare for what church officials have said would be a historic audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

The group includes representatives of 138 Muslim scholars and intellectuals who wrote to Benedict and other Christian leaders last year urging Christians and Muslims to develop their common ground of belief in one God.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, is hosting the representatives to lay the groundwork for a papal audience expected sometime later this year, Vatican officials said Tuesday. No date had been set.

Tauran himself has said the planned papal audience, which Benedict proposed as part of his official response to the Muslims' letter, could start a "historic" dialogue between the faiths.

The Vatican has welcomed the Muslim letter as an encouraging sign, eager to improve relations with moderate Islam ever since Benedict angered many in the Muslim world with a 2006 speech about Islam and violence.

In the speech, Benedict cited a Medieval text that 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 later said he was "deeply sorry" over the reactions to his remarks and that they did not reflect his own opinions.

In the letter to Benedict and other Christian leaders, the Muslim scholars, muftis and intellectuals drew parallels between Islam and Christianity and their common focus on love for God and love for one's neighbor. They also noted that such a focus is found in Judaism.

"As Muslims and in obedience to the Holy Quran, we ask Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions," the letter said. "Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us."

Noting that Christians and Muslims make up an estimated 55 percent of the world population, the scholars concluded that improving relations is the best way to bring peace to the world.