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Pope to Host Interfaith Gathering During Visit to Washington

Pope Benedict XVI will make his first official visit to the United States next week (15 - 20 April), with stops scheduled in Washington and New York City. Among the other items on his agenda, the pope will host an interfaith gathering at a cultural center in the nation's capitol. Representatives from the world's major religions have been invited to meet and discuss shared concerns with the pontiff. VOA's George Dwyer has an advance look at the planned event.

The Pope's interreligious gathering will take place here, at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.

"There will be representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Jewish, and Islamic religious traditions. The main theme of the conference is 'Religions Working for Peace,'" Father James Wiseman explained. The priest is a Professor of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, and an expert in interreligious dialogue.

"Pope Benedict will give an address to all of those in attendance, I believe about 200 altogether," added Father Wiseman. "Some of the representatives of the other religious traditions will express their greetings to Pope Benedict and some of the younger members from each of those five religious traditions will give him symbolic gifts."

Representing the six to eight million Muslims in the United States will be the National Director of the Islamic Society of North America, Dr. Sayyid Syeed. He says Catholics and Muslims have particularly a very special relationship.

"Catholics over generations have struggled for recognition and respect. Their experience of that struggle is directly relative to us establishing a respectable Islamic presence in America,” he said.

Dr. Syeed says he looks forward to meeting Pope Benedict, but admits he was troubled by a controversial reference the Pope made to an anti-Islamic Byzantine emperor during a visit to Germany in 2006,

"There was an unfortunate incident a few years ago while he was giving a speech in Regensburg, Germany. So he made an indirect comment about our Prophet Mohammed - 'peace be upon him.' And that was extremely painful. And unfortunately the reaction to that event, that incident was it was equally painful in many Muslim countries, people were very angry,” he said.

"Pope Benedict did later explain that he himself did not agree with the statements of that Byzantine emperor, but it would certainly have been better if he had made that clear at the time of his speech," Father Wiseman noted.

On a subsequent visit to Turkey, Benedict became only the second pope to visit a mosque, even taking a few moments to pray alone. That soothed some feelings, but it also reminded many that the dialogue must be kept up.

"I would like to make sure that if he has any misunderstanding about Islam we need to sit and discuss,” Dr. Syeed said. “Because it is only through discussion and dialogue that we should be able to overcome the obstacles that we may have in our minds towards moving forward in creating a peaceful human society."