VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Muslim leaders welcomed a pledge by Pope Benedict XVI to work for closer interfaith dialogue and urged the new pontiff to encourage Catholic-Muslim initiatives.
"If prominent Muslims and Catholics were seen meeting, this would send a strong message to the world," said Ronald Shaheed, director of Masjid Sultan Muhammad in Milwaukee, Wis.
"The pope should find ways of helping Christians and Muslims get know each other, encouraging young people to take the lead," he told Catholic News Service April 27 following the pope's first general audience in St. Peter's Square.
"As pope for Catholics worldwide, Benedict is already obligated to look at world suffering, unity and peace -- and this is why Christians and Muslims are finding each other. If the world's two largest religious communities could join together, beginning with small steps like ours, this would make a huge difference," he said.
David Shaheed, a Muslim who serves as a superior court judge in Indianapolis, said more should be done to publicize interreligious moves already under way.
"If people knew what's taken place thus far, this would be more instructive than anything else," David Shaheed said. "We've brought our communities together, showing positive dialogue can result in concrete action to help those in need. It would be a source of hope if the pope gave visible support to this."
More than 200 Muslims attended the audience after a four-day Islamic-Christian symposium at Castel Gandolfo. The symposium, hosted by the Focolare movement, brought together Muslim groups from 33 countries, including Pakistan, Indonesia, the United States and Canada.
Jo-Ellen Karsten, who helped organize the symposium, said Focolare founder Chiara Lubich had encouraged a "dialogue of life" with Imam Wallace D. Muhammed, a prominent U.S. Muslim who heads the Muslim American Society. Karsten said Focolare members have been meeting regularly with Muslims in a dozen U.S. cities to foster "living and sharing."
"Although these are grass-roots initiatives, they also involve imams and priests -- but they're not well known," Karsten told CNS.
"It's an excellent way to break down barriers, to learn more about Islam and Catholicism. It would be wonderful if the new pope could mention this publicly," she said.
During an April 25 audience with religious leaders, Pope Benedict welcomed the "growth of dialogue" between Muslims and Christians; the pope said the Church wished "to continue building bridges of friendship with followers of all religions."
A Muslim from Chicago, Mohammed Harisidi, said he had felt he "had to come" to the Focolare symposium, believing similar encounters" could eventually "consume the world with neighborly love."
"I couldn't have imagined being here a few years ago -- but I've been helped by knowing good Catholics from Focolare," Harisidi told CNS. "We have much more in common than separates us. But if you have two flowers, and you only water the flower of differences, that's the one which will get big."
Read More CNS Reports on Pope Benedict XVI
Visit Pope John Paul II Biography Feature