Catholic bishops, Muslim leaders and theologians in India have called for more inter-faith dialogue to bridge the gulf between the two religions, amid continuing tension following the Pope's remarks on Islam and his subsequent apology not fully quelling Muslim rage.
Catholic Bishops Conference of India's (CBCI) president and Archbishop of Ranchi, Cardinal Telesphore P Toppo, took the lead over the weekend when he met a group of top Muslim leaders following widespread criticism over Pope Benedict XVI's reference to Prophet Mohammed and issued a joint statement.
"The Muslim leaders gave me a memorandum asking for an apology from the Pope. I explained to them that the media had reported a few lines of the Pope's lecture out of context but the Pope has the highest regard for Islam," Cardinal Toppo said.
Muslim leaders also advised their community to maintain peace and religious harmony in Jharkhand, the cardinal added.
"It is crucial to hold inter-faith dialogues and frequent meetings with Muslims at the Diocesan local level over common issues affecting the communities from time to time to promote deeper understanding and appreciation of each faith. This is the effective way to build bridges of peace between communities."
The German-born Pope's remarks during a lecture in Germany on Sep 12—quoting a medieval emperor characterising some of the prophet's teachings as "evil and inhuman"—sparked outrage and provoked protests from Muslim political and religious leaders of many countries.
Protests erupted across the Muslim world, from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. A Catholic nun was shot dead in Somalia.
The embattled Pope, assailed from all sides by angry Muslim opinion, tendered his personal apology on Sep 17.
Bishop Thomas Dabre of Vasai, near Mumbai, who held a meeting with over 100 Muslim leaders on Sep 17, said tensions and misunderstandings arise when there is increasing gulf between various communities.
"We are all daughters and sons of one god. Once we stop fearing another faith, misunderstandings will vanish," said Bishop Dabre, who is also the chairperson of the CBCI Commission for Christian Doctrine.
"I grew up among Muslims. They were my classmates in school and college, and my Muslim neighbours treated me as their own," he said, adding that India was a unique country where all major religions of the world exist peacefully and this should be maintained.
"When I decided to join the seminary to become a priest, the neighbouring Muslim family was the first one to honour me."
Even as Catholics throughout India prayed for peace during the Sunday mass, Muslim clerics too stepped up efforts to contain the controversy from getting overtly communalised.
At an emergency meeting at a madrasa at Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, over 200 ulemas and imams advised the community to maintain restraint in their criticism of the Pope, as any irresponsible criticism could increase tensions.
"It is the ignorance of the people over certain issues which often leads to misunderstanding and riots," said Maulana Zaheer Abbas Rizvi, general secretary of the All India Ulema Council and national secretary of the All India Shia Muslim Personal Law Board.
Naseem Siddiqui and Abraham Mathai, chairman and vice chairman respectively of Maharashtra State Minority Commission, said the issue should not be blown out of proportion.
Both were worried when the Hindu rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) praised the Pope's remarks, which they thought could provoke clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
"With the Pope's apology I have been appealing to my Muslim brothers to forget and forgive," Siddiqui said.
"I have explained to Muslim leaders that the Pope has high regard for Muslims and that he was quoted out of context by the media," Mathai added.
According to Father Anthony Charanghat, editor of the 157-year-old weekly The Examiner and spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Mumbai: "The Catholic world appreciates jehad, which according to the Quran essentially means a spiritual struggle or striving."
"This defensive nature of physical violence is frequently lost among a small percentage that uses aggressive violence in the name of religion."