NEW YORK – Unease with Pope Benedict XVI's approach to Islam has led a U.S. Muslim group to decline joining in an interfaith event with him later this week.
Several other U.S. Muslim leaders expressed similar concerns about the pope, but pledged to participate in the Washington gathering, saying the two faiths should do everything possible to improve relations.
"Our going there is more out of respect for the Catholic Church itself," said Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, which interprets Islamic law. "Popes come and go, but the church is there."
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Siddiqi, co-chairman of the West Coast Muslim-Catholic Dialogue, is among the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu leaders scheduled to meet Benedict on Thursday at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. Muslims and Roman Catholics each have more than 1 billion followers worldwide. U.S. Catholic and Muslim leaders started holding interfaith talks in the early 1990s, and many of the Muslim leaders invited to the event Thursday are veterans of those discussions.
But Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles, said the event seemed "more ceremonial than substantive" and his organization would not participate. He said he was disappointed that no time was made in the pope's six-day trip for even a brief private meeting with U.S. Muslim leaders.
This is the first trip to the U.S. that Benedict has made since he was elected in 2005 to succeed John Paul. He turns 81 on Wednesday.
"It would have been a good opportunity for him to have a dialogue," al-Marayati said.
The pope has been praised by supporters for his frankness in approaching Islam and interfaith dialogue in general, but critics have called him insensitive.
Muslims in many nations reacted angrily when the pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor connecting Islam with violence in a 2006 speech at Germany's Regensburg University. Tensions eased after Benedict traveled to Turkey that same year, visiting Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque.
The pope was applauded for organizing a Nov. 4-6 meeting in Rome with Muslim religious leaders and scholars, as part of a push for more dialogue between Catholics and Muslims.
But many Muslims said the pontiff insulted them on Easter Sunday in St. Peter's Basilica, when he baptized Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born commentator who has criticized what he called the "inherent" violence in Islam. Islamic leaders said the prominence of the ceremony, not the conversion itself, was troubling.
"It's true that some of the gestures, some of the statements make us uncomfortable and we feel badly about it," said Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest communal group for American Muslims. "But our challenge is to not let those challenges hamper progress." Syeed will attend the meeting Thursday.
Imam Yahya Hendi, a leading advocate of interfaith dialogue and chaplain at the Jesuit-founded Georgetown University, had met John Paul and said he would participate in the interfaith gathering, because "I believe in the power of love and the power of dialogue." Hendi will also be among the thousands of people at a ceremony for the pope Wednesday at the White House.
But Hendi said that he and other Muslims were concerned that the pope wasn't visiting a mosque or meeting with leaders who represent the millions of Muslims living in the U.S.
"Since he came to office, things have happened that have been used on both sides to build up walls," Hendi said. "I think this could be a good opportunity for Pope Benedict to help people to build bridges."
American Muslims are unlike any Islamic migrant community Benedict has encountered in Europe. Many Muslims in the U.S. came for higher education and are now professionals — academics, business people, physicians and engineers — who are settled in the wealthier suburbs.
They've battled discrimination and intensive government scrutiny following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Yet they have also benefited from American constitutional protection for religious freedom. The U.S. Justice Department, along with civil rights groups that usually represent Jews and Christians, often help Muslims secure their religious rights in the workplace, public schools and elsewhere.
Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core based in Chicago, said that he was inspired as a boy by the interreligious outreach of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Patel, a Muslim born in India, said he had no concerns at all about participating in the Washington gathering, even though he wished the Easter conversion hadn't been so public.
"I think that we have to find ways to cooperate on important matters concerning the earth, including climate change, reducing disease, reducing poverty, increasing respect," he said. "That's where our focus should be."
Click to view the itinerary of Pope Benedict XVI's U.S. trip