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scholars are expressing surprise at a Vatican statement cautioning Catholic women against marrying Muslim men.The Catholic Church, like most major religions, does not favor religiously mixed marriages, and has set restrictions on them.

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And it urges Muslims to show "a growing awareness that fundamental liberties, the inviolable rights of the person, the equal dignity of men and women, the democratic principle of government, and the healthy lay-character of the state are principles that cannot be surrendered."Muslim scholars are expressing surprise at the tone of the Vatican's assessment.

The registrar of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education in Britain, Nizam Muhammad, took issue with the Vatican's view.

He said that a distinction must be made between religious belief and social custom.

The tone of the warning is unusually direct for today's ecumenical climate, in which organized religions are at pains to express their tolerance of other cultural backgrounds.

Referring to women as the "least-protected member of the Muslim family," it says that "bitter experience" shows the difficulties facing European women who marry Muslim men.

It says those difficulties are compounded in cases where the couple goes to live in a Muslim country.

The document further says that such marriages need to be very carefully prepared for.

He has made history by being the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to pray in a mosque, and he has sought to heal the ancient wounds between Christians and Jews.

But in spite of the general feelings of goodwill towards other religions that the Holy See has sought to generate since the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there is still concern about interfaith marriages.

This was illustrated by a document issued by the Vatican on 14 May on the subject of world migration.

In it, the head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, warns women in traditionally Catholic countries about the risks of marrying Muslim men.

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