Pope Benedict XVI has said he would like to reach out to the Muslim community through dialogue, and Muslims were included in the pontiff's meeting with interfaith leaders in Washington on Thursday night. But many Muslims in America remain wary, saying the pope has created the impression that he is insensitive to their faith.
On Sunday, the pope will visit Ground Zero, perhaps the most poignant symbol of the divide between the West and the more extremist elements of Islam. But interviews in New York and elsewhere indicate that even those Muslims who do not hold such radical views are critical of the pope.
Many still recall the pope's September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, in which Benedict quoted a Byzantine Christian emperor saying that the prophet Muhammad brought "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
That lecture sparked days of protests in Muslim countries, some of them violent, and an Italian nun in Somalia was killed in retaliation. The Pope repeated several times that he regretted the offense his speech caused, and that he has deep respect for Islam. But the remarks have caused lingering damage, according to Muslims and some Catholic scholars interviewed. . .
Some Muslim leaders invited to meet the pope in Washington declined, citing the controversies over the Regensburg lecture and conversion. "I didn't attend," said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who was invited to the interfaith meeting. "The invitation was to be involved in the ceremonies and the pageantry, but not in authentic, in-depth discussions on issues affecting Catholic-Muslim relations today."
There was no exchange in the meeting, according to participants, with Benedict delivering an address to the 200 leaders representing five faiths.
"It was not very interactive. It was not a two-way street," said Nihad Awad, a co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who attended.
Many Muslims fondly remember John Paul II, who made interfaith dialogue a central tenet of his papacy and was the first pope to step inside a mosque, while in Damascus, Syria, in May 2001. On that trip, he asked for a joint act of contrition "for all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another."