Syria's grand mufti invites pope to Syria

Vatican City - Syria's grand mufti, the country's top Sunni Muslim religious authority, says he would like to meet Pope Benedict XVI and persuade him to visit Syria.

The mufti, Sheik Ahmad Badereddine Hassoun, made the comments in Damascus, according to the Italian news agency Apcom and other reports Friday.

"I would like to invite the Holy Father to visit our country, following in the footsteps of St. Paul," Hassoun was quoted by Apcom as saying. "I am available for a meeting at the Vatican. I would like to see him one on one to plan the visit together."

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made a groundbreaking visit to the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus in May 2001.

Benedict has been vacationing in the Italian Alps.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the invitation attests to the current "serene climate" in Syria and "good relations" with the country.

Benedict has been trying to improve ties with Islam since giving a speech in Germany in 2006 that angered many in the Muslim world.

In the Regensburg University speech, Benedict cited a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The pope later said he was "deeply sorry" about the reactions his remarks sparked and stressed that they did not reflect his own opinion.

Hassoun, a moderate cleric, said the case was closed.

"There is a dialogue, and between religions and intellectuals there are always discussions," he said, according to Apcom. "One can fight with one's wife, but then the love grows."

Hassoun is among a group of 138 Muslim scholars that has called for greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Benedict XVI met with Syria's vice president in September to discuss the situation of Christians in Syria and the role Damascus should play in bringing peace to the Middle East.

The pope has urged Syria to use its influence in the region to help resolve conflicts and counter terrorism.