WASHINGTON Pope Benedict, who is sometimes seen as insensitive to other faiths, will reach out to other religious leaders during his first visit to the United States, even though the trip is aimed at Roman Catholics.
The pope will meet with about 150 leaders of other religions on Thursday as he visits Washington, and he plans to visit a synagogue in New York on Friday.
Since his 2005 election, the pontiff has provoked concern and anger among Hindus, Muslims and Jews with highly publicized missteps. But leaders of those faiths said they are optimistic that interfaith dialogue will advance during his papacy.
"There have been a lot of positive steps," said Ravi Gupta, a religion professor at Centre College in Kentucky, a Hindu leader who will meet with the pope. "I'm hopeful ... in terms of what the possibilities are."
U.S. Catholic bishops and leaders of other faiths have been holding behind-the-scenes contacts regularly, U.S. religious leaders said.
Pope Benedict's criticism of India in 2006 for what he said were "disturbing signs of religious intolerance" over efforts to ban conversions drew a sharp response from the government and the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Muslim world reacted angrily in 2006 when the pope quoted a Christian emperor as saying the Prophet Mohammad had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things, a remark that overshadowed the conciliatory theme of his address. He provoked more criticism last month by baptizing a Muslim convert.
Jews were worried over his recent approval of a Good Friday prayer in Latin appearing to call for the conversion of Jews, reviving language largely eliminated in reforms of the 1960s.
"He's had a few bumps as we all know," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly and one of the Jewish leaders invited to the interfaith meeting.
"Some of his references ... have not been the best, the most sensitive, but I want to put that in context," Meyers said. "What he was doing, and what he continues to do, is to try to reach out. And I think he is trying to do that with the Orthodox (Christian) community, with the Muslim community. He certainly has done it with the Jewish community."
Pope Benedict became only the second pontiff to visit a synagogue, even before his planned visit to another this trip. After the furor over his comments about Mohammad, the pope visited the Blue Mosque in Turkey, becoming the second pontiff to visit a Muslim place of worship.
"I believe the pope is heading toward the right direction. He is trying to build bridges with Muslims," said Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, religious director of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan.
Qazwini, who has met the pope at the Vatican and will be at the Washington session, said, "I do not assume at all that because of his previous views the pope will be less open to dialogue." In fact, he added, those reactions "may help the pope to entertain more moderate views about Islam."
The religious leaders said it was clear the pope would never change some views, and it was unrealistic to think he would.
"People say, 'Well, he still says the Catholic Church is really the most favored church, or the best church.' Well, I would hope so. I wouldn't expect him to say anything else as the leader of the Catholic Church," Meyers said.
In fact, several religious leaders said, interfaith dialogue works best when the participants agree to disagree on doctrinal differences and focus on areas of agreement and common concern.
"There is no point in discussing theological differences. They are old, in some cases ancient," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, who also will attend the meeting with the pope.
Weinreb said his work with Catholic leaders in New York focused on issues where they agree, like state aid to parochial schools. "We also work together on the issues of poverty, employment, peace in the sense of between our communities, but peace in the broader sense as well," he said.
While Jews have a long-standing dialogue with the Vatican, it has only recently launched a dialogue with some Muslim scholars, and its meetings with Hindus are less formalized.
Both Gupta and Qazwini said they hoped this week's meeting would lead to a more permanent dialogue. Although it is a formal session with little chance for conversation, the religious leaders said the meeting would send an important signal.
"When leaders come together it sends a very strong message to their religious communities, of course, that it is necessary for there to be understanding and education about different religious traditions," Gupta said.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)