ROME — When Zeinep Ozbek told her parents how she planned to pursue her education, they were shocked.
Not only was the young Muslim woman about to leave her native Turkey, she was venturing into a strict traditional bastion of Christianity: Rome.
Ozbek, 25, is now one of several Muslim students ensconced in the Vatican’s system of higher learning in and around the Italian capital. They attend pontifical universities, schools sanctioned by the Vatican, taking lessons from nuns and priests and sitting in classrooms decorated with crucifixes, in buildings adorned with larger-than-life statues and symbols of papal power.
As Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey today, international attention is riveted on his attempts to improve troubled relations between Christians and Muslims. But here in Rome, at a more grass-roots level, a less-noticed experiment is taking place.
Officially, the Muslim students attend the Jesuit-run Gregorian Pontifical University and other Vatican schools to learn about Christianity. In reality, they have become mediators navigating the suddenly very tricky world of interfaith dialogue and understanding.
Some are meeting Christians for the first time, and they are often the first Muslims their Christian classmates have encountered. Several said they wanted to correct Western misconceptions about Islam.
Interfaith dialogue was a favorite theme of the late Pope John Paul II, who became the first pontiff to enter a mosque. Benedict asks for an honest interaction that might ultimately lay bare mistrust and chafe historic sensitivities.
His speech in September at the University of Regensburg in Germany was seen by many Muslims as an insult to their faith and its founder, the prophet Muhammad. In it, Benedict quoted a medieval emperor who branded Islam “evil and inhuman.”
Ever since, in the face of Muslim anger, the pope has sought to explain that he was attempting to illustrate the incompatibility of faith and violence and that he has profound respect for Islam. In Turkey, crowds have been protesting the planned four-day visit.
The Regensburg comments also proved problematic for Muslim students in Rome, and raised questions about the pope’s commitment to interfaith dialogue.
“All the trouble of the recent months has been pushing people to think carefully about where dialogue is headed, and to realize how much more urgent it is,” said Father Daniel Madigan, head of the Gregorian’s Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, where most of the Muslim students are based.
The program at the Gregorian is facing some uncertainty because Madigan, a leading expert on Islam and interfaith relations at a time the Vatican needs such insight, is leaving Rome for a position at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.
Ozbek, the Turkish woman working on a master’s degree, had never met a Christian before she came to Rome. The Christian communities in Turkey are tiny and generally linked to ethnic groups such as Greeks or Armenians that Ozbek did not find particularly embracing.
Some of her friends and relatives were afraid her immersion in a Catholic world would cause her to lose her identity. But that is a fear of those insecure in their faith, she said; for her, learning about the “richness” of Christianity only expanded her own devotion and helped her see “the other” as a fellow human being.
“Generally I’m the first Muslim person they have met and they ask lots of questions,” she said.
Ozbek wears a head scarf. An irony of her experience here is that most Turkish universities, obeying a strictly enforced government policy of secularism, would not let her attend class with her head covered.
Naser Dumarreh, 34, of Damascus, Syria, said the pious Catholic milieu that Rome provided was more comfortable than a secular Western environment.
“I’m living in a Christian society, not a Western society, and there’s not such a big difference from an Islamic society,” said Dumarreh, one of the first Middle Easterners to join the program.
The students said they felt a fair amount of pressure as representatives of Islam.
“They expect me to know everything about Islam, to be able to quote all the verses of the Koran by heart,” said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, 28, a Turk who has been studying in Rome for three years. But he says there is a mutual learning curve. Until arriving at the Gregorian, he did not know of the many positive references to Christianity contained in the Koran.
“I’m not the same Mustafa who came here,” he said.
Several of the students said understanding Christianity had broadened their understanding of Islam, a later religion that incorporates some of the earlier Christian and Judaic traditions.
“To study in Rome on Christianity means to me to discover the historical, literary and theological background of the Koran,” said Esra Gozeler, who is working here on her PhD and teaches theology at the University of Ankara in Turkey.
Omar Sillah, a 30-year-old student from Gambia who is specializing in the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), has seen the traditions of his Muslim faith reflected in Catholicism. He knew Christians before coming to Rome; in fact, he studied at a missionary school in Gambia. But Rome was an eye-opener.
After the pope’s Regensburg speech, Sillah said, he was bombarded with e-mails and questions from fellow students. He told them that a religion of violence and evil “is not the Islam that I follow.”
His goal, he said, is to show Christians in Rome “by our actions” a different kind of Islam.
But he doesn’t mind the endless queries. “That’s our goal — that’s dialogue,” he said.