A Common Word

This week a meeting will take place in Rome that won't get much press coverage. It may, however, prove to be the beginning of the most critical negotiations in modern history. From the BBC:

Vatican officials and senior Muslims are due to meet in Rome, hoping to lay the groundwork for landmark Catholic-Islamic talks later this year.

Five senior figures from each religion will define the terms of a larger meeting involving Pope Benedict XVI.

Catholic-Muslim relations soured after a 2006 speech in Germany, in which the Pope quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor's criticisms of Islam.

The Regensburg speech provoked Muslim fury and triggered protests worldwide.

But it also prompted 138 Muslim scholars to launch an appeal to the Pope for greater dialogue.

Among the Muslim representatives at this week's two-day talks are a Turk, a Briton, a Jordanian, a Libyan and an Italian.

The Vatican has regular meetings with officials from Cairo's al-Azhar University, a seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

But the Pope now seems convinced of the need for a wider, if more difficult dialogue with Islam.

Reuters also has the story. Why is this so important? If our current course continues, the conflict between radical Islam and the West is going to end very, very badly. Many more will die on both sides. We cannot win this battle with military force. Our only hope is to reach some kind of arrangement that will let Christianity and Islam share the planet in peace.

Such an agreement won't come easily. Yet I think there is cause for optimism. Muslims don't hate us for our freedom; they hate what we do with our freedom. It is the radical secularism of Western society that Islam finds unacceptable. Benedict XVI finds it unacceptable, too, and has been working to change it. He may be the only person in the world who has moral authority with both Christians and Muslims. He is also someone who will not compromise the Truth.

The Muslim scholars, for their part, seem to be sincere. They call their group A Common Word, and their web site has a hopeful tone. Do they represent all Muslims? No. Even if some sort of agreement is reached - which could take years - it's far from clear they will be able to convince the Islamic world to accept it.

This week's meetings are for the purpose of agreeing upon an agenda for wider talks later this year. Boring? Yes, but the agenda is critically important. It is the first step down a very long road, and a road that will have many twists and turns. Yet it is the only road that will lead to peace - and maybe even survival. It is a road we have to take.

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