ROME, April 12 -- After two decades of contact and dialogue with the Islamic world under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican is rethinking an outreach program that critics say is diluting Catholicism and has brought almost no benefits to beleaguered Catholic minorities in Muslim countries.
The late pontiff undertook the drive as part of a broad effort to open channels to other religions. He applied a personal stamp by stepping into a mosque in Damascus and meeting with Muslim groups more than 60 times. He also visited a synagogue in Rome and Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, said the next pope might more emphatically demand rights for Christian minorities in Islamic countries and the freedom of all people to choose their faith.
"There may be a greater insistence on religious liberty," said Fitzgerald, the church's point man on Islamic relations. "But I don't think we're going to go to war. The times of the Crusades are over. . . . I don't see any fundamental change in the way the church has been dealing with these questions."
Justo Lacunza Balda, who heads the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, a Vatican research group, said criticism was focused on the lack of reciprocal goodwill gestures in many Muslim countries. "Humanly speaking, it is of course important to see some payback," he said.
Certainly many Muslims publicly mourned John Paul. Rwanda's mufti, Saleh Habimana, declared that "the death of the pope is the disappearance of a hero of recent times." President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, a Muslim cleric, flew to Rome for the funeral in an unprecedented sign of respect.
But elsewhere, feelings toward the pope were less warm and, at times, openly hostile. One Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, said the pope had not apologized for the Crusades and that Muslims were waiting. Radical Islamic Web sites sometimes predict that Muslims will conquer Europe and set up headquarters in the Vatican.
Before they stopped speaking to the press on Saturday, several of the 115 cardinals who are in Rome to elect John Paul's successor cited the spread of Islam as one of the major issues facing the church. Hanging over the church's deliberations, Vatican officials said, was whether to view Islam as a collaborator in combating secularism or a religious rival.
It has been a rival historically. Muslim invaders established their faith on European soil in Spain and the Balkans in the 8th century; European Crusaders seized control of the Holy Land from Muslims between the 11th and 14th centuries. Now, the large Muslim minorities that have emerged in historically Christian European cities have engendered suspicion from the majority populations.
Many people in the Vatican view Christianity as under siege in parts of the world. They say that Christian populations are shrinking in countries in the Middle East in part because of long-term discrimination and repression by Muslim majorities. Catholic churches in Baghdad have been the targets of terrorist attacks; Christian communities are under physical attack by Muslims in Nigeria and the Philippines. Sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest-growing area for Catholicism, is also the fastest-growing for Islam.
In the Muslim world, many people view the situation in reverse, believing that the Christian West, through movies and television, is reshaping the values of Islam and, through the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, taking over historically Muslim lands.
"The relationship among religions is probably the most significant" issue facing the next pope, said Rev. Augustine DiNoia, the second-ranking official in the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is in charge of safeguarding orthodoxy. "The fundamental problem is how to value another religion without devaluing your own."
None of the frequently mentioned papal candidates has called for ending dialogue, but they have taken different approaches to sustaining it. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was John Paul's chief guardian of Catholic doctrine, has placed a priority on shoring up faith among Catholics as a prerequisite for successful interfaith dialogue. In 2000, he wrote a declaration called Dominus Iesus, or Lord Jesus, stressing the superiority of Catholicism.
Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze, the most-mentioned African candidate, doesn't dispute Ratzinger's Catholic-centric approach but sees contact with other religions as a vehicle for strengthening Catholicism. In his 1997 book, "Meeting Other Believers," Arinze wrote: "Through contact with other believers, the Church also learns much. Christians learn what great gifts, for example, of wisdom, holiness of life, love of others, self-gift to others and asceticism God has given to some people who are outside the visible boundaries of the Church."