CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy – Pope Benedict XVI pushed for peace between Christian and Islamic faiths on Monday, telling Muslim diplomats that past hostilities must be overcome for the sake of humanity. The pope urged unity between the two religions and called for 'reciprocity' in religious freedom, so that the rights of Christians may be preserved throughout the Islamic world.
In his speech to Muslin envoys, the pope sought to diffuse Muslim anger over remarks he made about Islam on Sept. 12 at Regensburg University in Germany. The pope did not dwell on his contested remarks, except to comment, "The circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well known."
The contested speech involved Benedict quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying, "Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
The pope has already said that the quotation did not reflect his personal view, and he regretted the outrage that was prompted by his comments, but he has stopped short of a direct apology.
Still, the pontiff's five-minute address Monday at a meeting with 22 foreign diplomats and representatives of Italian Muslim organizations — whom the pope greeted one-by-one, clasping their hands warmly — seemed to be well received by his guests at his vacation palace in the Alban Hills south of Rome.
"The Holy Father stated his profound respect for Islam. This is what we were expecting," Iraqi envoy Albert Edward Ismail Yelda said as he left the 30-minute meeting. "It is now time to put what happened behind and build bridges."
Nearly all the other envoys left without speaking to reporters. The embassies of Egypt and Turkey said their ambassadors would have no comment. The Iranian, Indonesian, Lebanese and Libyan embassies did not answer their phones.
Fahmi Howeidi, a liberal Islamic writer in Egypt, said that since the pope did not apologize, protests may continue. "(Benedict) addressed the ambassadors but didn't deal with the Muslim street, the anger in the street will continue," Howeidi said in a telephone interview.
Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, called the meeting "mainly political" intended to improve relations with Muslim states.
"The people that were convinced he was against Islam are not going to change their minds," said Ramadan, who recently wrote that Muslims must respond to Benedict's view of the Christian character of Europe and what it means for identity.
Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language broadcaster, carried the pope's speech live.
Benedict touched on religion and violence, saying Christians and Muslims "must learn to work together ... to guard against all forms of intolerance and to oppose all manifestations of violence."
He quoted from a key document of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s stating that "although considerable dissensions and enmities between Christians and Muslims may have arisen in the course of the centuries," both faiths must move on and work for "peace and freedom for all people."
Benedict said he invited the diplomats to "strengthen the bonds of friendship" between their religions, but did not offer any analysis of the controversial passage, which came in a speech exploring faith and reason.
The pope said dialogue between Christians and Muslims "cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is, in fact, a vital necessity on which in large measure our future depends."
Benedict has been seen as less interested in promoting close relations with Muslims than his predecessor, John Paul II, whose travels in the Muslim world included a visit to a mosque in Syria.
He cited John Paul in his speech Monday, noting his predecessor's words, during a visit to Morocco in 1985, urging that "respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres," particularly religious freedom. This is a major issue for the Vatican in Saudi Arabia and other countries where non-Muslims cannot worship openly.
Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Among predominantly Muslim nations with diplomatic ties to the Vatican, only Sudan did not participate in the meeting.
Among those attending was a diplomat from Indonesia, where Christian-Muslim tensions were heightened last week by the execution of three Roman Catholic militants. Benedict had appealed for the men's lives to be spared.
Turkey also participated. Benedict plans to travel in November to that predominantly Muslim but officially secular country, which was among the first to vigorously protest the Regensburg remarks.
Last week, the Holy See's ambassadors in Muslim countries met with officials to assure them the pope respects Islam and to urge a complete reading of the speech.
The Vatican and much of the Muslim world share some important goals, including the battle against legalized abortion. Benedict also was among the first to urge Israel to turn to dialogue in its battle in Lebanon against Hezbollah guerrillas.
Benedict gave "a very clear, very intelligent speech," said Mohamed Nour Dachan, an Italian of Syrian origin who heads the Union of Islamic Communities, one of the more radical Italian Muslim groups. "In a few words, the dialogue goes on. The dialogue is a priority for both Muslims and Christians."
In a departure from usual practice, the Vatican press office included a translation of the speech in Arabic.