Amid tensions with other faiths, Pope Benedict XVI will be cautious and careful in meetings this week with other religious leaders, experts said.
The pope, who will arrive in the United States on Tuesday, infuriated Muslims in a speech two years ago, and leaders of other denominations have complained recently of a "pulling back" of the softer rhetoric used by Pope John Paul II.
"It's an expectant time. You don't know what you'll get with Benedict," said the Rev. Donald Green, executive director of Christian Associates, an ecumenical organization covering 10 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Green will not attend the pope's meeting Thursday in Washington with interfaith leaders.
The pope will meet with 200 religious officials including representatives from the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu communities.
He'll conduct a prayer service Friday in New York with about 250 leaders of Christian faiths.
"The present pope is more of a cautious character. He's been burned, to some extent, in his relations with Muslims," said David Bryan Cook, an assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University.
In a 2006 speech at Regensburg University in Germany, Benedict irked Muslims by making a reference to an obscure medieval text that characterized some teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman." The Vatican later said the pope regretted offending Muslims.
Cook said this could be a time of proceeding slowly in interfaith relations.
Despite the tensions, Benedict's visit is important for all faiths, said the Rev. Donald McCoid, former bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod.
Benedict is earning respect from other religious leaders because he stakes out his position and says "now, we can talk," said McCoid, who heads the church's ecumenical and inter-religious section in Chicago.
During the visit, the pope will show that he can go beyond discussions of theology and academics to the concerns of the day, said McCoid, who will attend the New York service.
"This visit and his presence is a spirit of cooperation and a sign of unity with one another, and I believe that's very, very important," said McCoid, who met with Benedict at the Vatican in September and found him to be "a quiet presence with a genuine warmth."
It's important that the pope meet with the leaders of other faiths, said Rebecca Venova, visiting lecturer in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Religious Studies. …