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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.
While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict's speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.
This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world's two largest faiths get along better.
Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at a Catholic university in Washington, said Benedict's use of Muslim terminology showed "where the Holy See is heading and where it has its heart.
"It wants to reach out to Muslims," said Hendi, who also teaches Islamic studies and interfaith dialogue at Georgetown.
"He's learning the right words, the ones they can hear," said Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a professor at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary who is active in dialogue with Muslims.
Before becoming pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger thought discussing theology with Muslims was all but impossible because Islam sees the Koran as the literal word of God and rejects the scriptural analysis Christians and Jews do.
In the Regensburg speech, this view led to the suggestion that Christianity blended faith and reason while Islam didn't.
"There was an implication that Islam had no place for reason," said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the "Common Word" group of Islamic scholars who launched a new theological dialogue between Muslims and Christians after Regensburg.
"The conclusion was that violence comes out of the Islamic tradition almost necessarily," said Kalin, a Turkish professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown and in Ankara.
Since its start in 2007, the Common Word group has argued the two faiths share the core values of love of God and love of neighbour. It has organised several conferences to help each side see how the other understands and expresses these values.
Rev. Christophe Roucou, the French Catholic Church's liaison with Muslims, said the main shift in Benedict's thinking was to drop his earlier analysis of Islam as a faith weak in reason.
"Now he says Muslims and Christians can use faith and reason together," said Roucou, a fluent Arabic speaker. "It isn't faith on one side and reason on the other anymore."
Benedict signalled that change at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman last Saturday when he said Christians and Muslims should work together "to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast potential of human reason."
He described God as "merciful and compassionate," borrowing a classic phrase from the Koran. Kalin described this Amman address as "very positive" and remarked approvingly: "It's a long way from the Regensburg speech."
At Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock on Tuesday, Benedict echoed the Common Word's theme by telling Palestinian Muslim leaders that "undivided love for the One God and charity towards ones neighbour" were the "fulcrum around which all else turns."
He also called God "the infinite source of justice and mercy," two values Muslims associate with God as naturally as Christians equate God with love.
Visotzky said Benedict was not betraying his faith by using terms dear to Islam. "He can justify that language of justice and mercy straight from the prophets of the Old Testament," he said. "So it's his language too."
The rabbi credited Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal, a leading figure in the Common Word group, with seeking a way for the world's two largest faiths "to learn to talk to one another as opposed to offending one another inadvertently."
In his speech at the Amman mosque, Ghazi reminded Benedict of the "hurt" Muslims felt after the Regensburg speech and said they appreciated his later statement that he did not agree with the Byzantine emperor he had quoted criticising Islam.
The Vatican was initially cool to the Common Word's call for dialogue, in contrast to some other Christian churches that promptly embraced it, and only held extensive discussions with group leaders at a Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome last November.
The official scepticism melted and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, even said the group could become a "favoured channel" in Catholicism's dialogue with Islam.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul