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American Muslims Look for Signs of Progress in Interfaith Relations During Pope's Visit

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Washington, DC next week, he will include American Muslims in a meeting of interfaith leaders. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledges a troubled past in the relationship between Christians and Muslims, a past that includes the crusades and holy wars of the Middle Ages. The U.S. Roman Catholic bishops point to recent efforts for reconciliation by the Church, including the visit to a Christian and Muslim holy site in Syria in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi looks at the status of Christian-Muslim relations in the U.S. on the eve of Benedict's visit.

Some Islamic militants liken the current conflicts to religious wars of the past. Al Qaida's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video two years ago, compared the current Catholic church leader to the 11th-century pope who launched the crusades.

One leading U.S. scholar says the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. confirmed to some people that Muslims and Christians will always fight.

Professor John Voll of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University says the response he saw to the September 11th attacks was mostly positive. "The most remarkable thing was the number of requests that we got, not for people who would come and talk about how terrorist Muslims were, but rather for help in organizing Muslim-Christian dialogue in local communities," he said.

In the past four decades, the Vatican has promoted reconciliation. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council pleaded with Christians and Muslims to overcome their past differences and work for peace and understanding.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II was hailed for visiting the cherished Ummayad Mosque in Syria and urging respectful dialogue between what he called two great religious communities.

In October, 130 leading Muslim scholars from around the world issued a letter calling for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity. They said the very survival of the world is at stake.

"I really think that this initiative that has come from Muslims for theological dialogue based upon the principles of love of God and love of neighbors is very positive," says Professor John Borelli, National Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue at the U.S Jesuit Conference. "The Vatican has responded and what will come out of this will be the largest Muslim dialogue that the Vatican has co-sponsored."

Borelli says during Pope Benedict's U.S. visit, American Muslim leaders will participate in interfaith activities with the pontiff.

Yet, nearly two years ago, it was this pope who angered many Muslims when he quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who had criticized the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. The pontiff later sought to defuse the anger, expressing deep respect for all Muslims.

Parvez Ahmed is Chairman of Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says demonization of Islam in the Christian West is a serious problem. "Many mainstream religious leaders have said very derogatory things about the Prophet Muhammad, about Islam and about Allah [God] in a way that if it had been said for any other faith or group there would be a major backlash on it," he said. "Unfortunately these important figures, religious and political figures made these hateful comments about Islam and in some sense they got away with it." He adds Muslims must follow their religious teachings and respect other faiths to foster better relations.

Keith Ellison is the first Muslim American to be elected to the U.S Congress. He points to the lessons of the Koran as a path to better relations. "Those lessons speak to religious tolerance, those lessons speak to gender equality, all the things that we should rely on. And the world of Islam should never operate on the basis of fear, because from fear we get exclusion, from fear we get harsh actions, desperate actions, and revengeful actions," Ellison said.

Pope Benedict, who has recently appealed for an end to bloody conflicts in the Middle East, has also said the religious and inter-cultural dialogues are necessary to build a world of peace.