By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - After absorbing the blow of Sept. 11, some Roman Catholic cardinals in Europe want to enlist Muslims as future allies against a challenge confronting both their religions -- the godless nature of modern life.
Church leaders, now in Rome to elect a successor to Pope John Paul, initially echoed widespread concerns about militant Islam after the 2001 attacks, and sometimes depicted the faith as a spiritual rival the next pope must be able to stand up to.
But now some cardinals, including several seen as possible popes, are stressing the need to work with, not against, what is the second religion in much of Europe. They also see this as a contribution to peace both at home and in the Islamic world.
"Christians and Muslims who live together should try to meet and dialogue to refute the talk about a clash of civilisations," Milan Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi said recently, urging Italians to get to know the Muslims in their midst.
This was all the more urgent because faith itself was under siege, said Brussels Cardinal Godfried Danneels. Many church pews are empty in Europe as people turn to spiritual fads, secularism or simple indifference to religion altogether.
"There is only one important thing in the Church and in the world, that's to keep alive the idea of God and the spiritual nature of the human being and the world," he said last week.
CATHOLIC-MUSLIM ALTER EGOS
Europe, Christianity's heartland, is now home to about 15 million Muslims whose very public loyalty to their faith makes Catholic leaders envious. The rise of militant Islam has added a suspicion and fear of Muslims that strains everyday relations.
But Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola, who has just launched a magazine about Christian-Muslim understanding, sees Europe as the region where the two religions that have clashed since the Crusades will finally come to know and appreciate each other.
"The challenge of dealing with Islam will be played out in Europe," he said last month. "This is part of the mixing of civilisations. We have to join this process and accompany it."
Pope John Paul himself pioneered more open relations with Islam by visiting a Damascus mosque in 2001.
London Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said that there was little opportunity for such dialogue in predominantly Muslim countries.
He hoped dialogue in the West would "increase and make inroads" in Islamic countries.
This forward-looking view is not unanimous. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul's doctrinal watchdog, last year rejected the idea of Turkey joining the European Union by saying Islam was a separate culture and Ankara should work more with Arabs.
"It's very common in Italy for the clergy to quote Oriana Fallaci," said Father Daniel Madigan, Islam expert at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, referring to the Italian author of best-selling books slamming Islam and Arab countries.
But Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council (CFCM) representing Europe's largest Islamic minority, said the more conciliatory view was spreading among Church leaders.
"We see more goodwill and friendship between the Church and Islam," he said by telephone from Paris.
However, prelates trying to defend the Church against the rise of esoteric sects and religious indifference have realized that many moderate Muslim leaders have the same goal, he said.
"These men of the Church see the men of Islam as alter egos," said Boubakeur, who is also rector of the Paris Grand Mosque. "Islam and the Church find themselves both defending faith, holiness, traditions and respect for structures."