CAIRO - As Roman Catholic cardinals are convening to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, Muslims hope that the new pontiff will be more like late John Paul II,, who invested robust efforts in improving relations between followers of the world's biggest religions.
This pope had not really been a bridge-builder, Adil Najam, vice chancellor at Pakistan's Lahore University of Management Sciences, told The Washington Post in reference to Benedict.
And there will be hope that the next one will be someone who tries to heal wounds and build bridges, added Najam, a former director of Boston University's Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.
Cardinals convened Tuesday, March 12, to elect a new pope to succeed Benedict, who resigned last month for health reasons.
A dozen of names of candidates are circulating to become the new pontiff, but it is difficult to tell who is the most favorite.
Muslims hope that the new pope will follow the path of late John Paul II in improving relations between followers of Islam and Catholicism after eight years of tension under Benedict.
In 2006, Pope Benedict angered Muslims by quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor that everything Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) brought was evil and inhuman.
Benedict has repeatedly said the words did not reflect his personal views but stopped short of a clear apology to Muslims.
Relations hit new ebb after the pope said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution following a church attack in Egypt.
Many Muslims complain that Benedict had ruined a peace legacy by his predecessor John Paul II.
John Paul II made considerable achievements in improving relations between Islam and Catholicism.
In 1986, he took the unprecedented step of hosting a grand inter-religious gathering that saw Jewish, Christian and Muslim dignitaries gather in Assisi, central Italy, alongside Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, representatives of the Shinto faith and African and Amerindian religions for a day of prayer for peace.
Years later in November 2004, the Polish pope was still promoting the same ideals: "No one has the right to use religion as an instrument of intolerance, as a means of aggression, violence and death," he told a mixed-faith delegation from Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country.
John Paul II also sought direct dialogue with Islam. Already the first pope to enter a synagogue, in May 2001 in Damascus he became the first pope to enter a mosque.
Some Muslims opine that the election of an African or Asian pope would help improve relations between followers of Islam and Catholicism.
There could be a lot of opportunity, Qamar-ul Huda, an expert on religious conflict and reconciliation at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, told The Washington Post.
A young pope could be more in tune with the globalized world and all the interfaith activity that takes place.
He thinks that the selection of a pope from Africa or Asia, where Muslims and Christians live together, would benefit inter-faith relations.
They live in pluralistic societies, and have to have good relations with Muslims so their communities get along on a day-to-day basis.
Experts opine that the new pope would have a daunting task of improving relations with Muslims.
A new pope will not just want to talk about love and peace, said the Rev. Patrick J. Ryan, a Jesuit priest and professor of religion and society at Fordham University in New York.
He will want to talk about the difficult subjects, too.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative, an organization dedicated to improving Muslim-Western relations, agrees.
What the pope says or doesn't say can have enormous consequences on such relations, he said.
Ebrahim Moosa, an Islamic studies professor at Duke University, believes that having better relations with Muslims plays into the hands of the Vatican.The Vatican is invested in good relations with the Muslim world, and under a new pope there is no reason to believe that it would be any different.