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Pope Is Regretful That His Speech Angered Muslims

A Vatican statement includes no apology, though, saying his words were misunderstood.

September 17, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — With furor spreading throughout the Islamic world, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep regret Saturday that a speech he gave at a German university last week had offended Muslims.

A statement released by his new secretary of State said of Benedict: "In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words."

It did not seem likely that the expression of regret would satisfy clamor from many corners of the world that the pope apologize. He distanced himself from the language that Muslims found objectionable, but he did not retract the words or ask for forgiveness.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest and most influential Islamic organizations in the Middle East, issued an initial response that Benedict's overture was insufficient.

Hostility to the pope's speech -- a dense lecture in which he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor as saying, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman" -- has plunged Benedict's 17-month-old papacy into its most difficult diplomatic crisis.

Muslim communities in Europe, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere have expressed anger at the pontiff.

His effigy was burned in India, and he has been compared to Hitler and Mussolini.

Morocco on Saturday became the first Islamic country to recall its Holy See ambassador.

In Cairo, Coptic Christian leaders joined their Muslim counterparts in condemning the pope.

Earlier on Saturday, Palestinians firebombed four churches in the West Bank city of Nablus and shot at one in the Gaza Strip. No injuries were reported. And Iraqi and Somalian militants threatened to kill the pope or attack Rome.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded a retraction of Benedict's "ugly and unfortunate" comments, saying that "the pope spoke like a politician rather than as a man of religion." Benedict's scheduled trip to Turkey in November, his first to a Muslim country, may be in jeopardy, though Vatican officials hoped Saturday's statement would help clear the air.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of State who issued the communique, said the pope in no way endorsed the passage he quoted from Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and meant only to illustrate the rejection of religious motivation for violence.

"The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions," Bertone said.

The pope expressed hope of "quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment," Bertone added.

Tuesday's speech was delivered at the University of Regensburg, where Benedict, when he was known as Joseph Ratzinger, taught theology in the 1970s.

Benedict's return was part of a six-day tour of his native Bavaria.

The Regensburg speech was meant to be one of the most important documents of his papacy. Benedict labored long hours drafting it over his summer holidays. It lays out the central tenets of his papacy, including the importance of the partnership of reason and faith in Western Christianity.

His few references to Islam seemed to portray it as a historically violent faith reliant on forced conversions and jihad, which he translated as holy war. Christianity's own bloodstained past was not mentioned.

Vatican experts were divided over whether Benedict miscalculated the depth of anger his words would inspire, or whether he might not care. As a consummate theologian, the role he played for the last quarter-century, he is not averse to debate and controversy, and he clearly wanted to stake out his positions in stark and dramatic terms.

But it is one thing to conduct such discussions as an academic and another to do so as pope, who is also a world leader, a politician and head of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

"Pushing these buttons of protest will not help the future of religious dialogue, neither for Muslims nor for us," said Alberto Melloni, a church historian. "The pope does not live on an island but in Rome, and it's hard to see that this controversy will simply be disregarded."

Perhaps more important, the Regensburg speech reflected Benedict's conviction that Christianity is a superior religion and that Islam must be treated more cautiously. His predecessor, John Paul II, frequently embraced Christians, Muslims and Jews as "the children of Abraham" and promoted interfaith dialogue.

In his first homily as pontiff, Benedict dropped any reference to Islam when mentioning respect for other faiths. This year, he demoted the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which oversees relations with Muslims and members of other religions. He sent its Rome-based president, a leading expert on Islam, to Cairo to serve as an envoy to Egypt instead.

In Regensburg, "the pope was thinking he was writing an academic treatise, but in writing an academic treatise, his deep mistrust of at least part of Islam came to the surface," said Marco Politi, Vatican specialist for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Several Vatican watchers said Saturday's more conciliatory statement reflected the hand of Benedict's newly installed aides, most notably Bertone, a longtime associate. Bertone assumed the post of secretary of State, No. 2 in the Vatican, on Friday.

Vatican officials were said to have been especially taken aback by criticism from moderate European Muslims.

Benedict's associates, Politi said, "understood that more than 40 years of evolving good relations between the Catholic Church and the Islamic world were at stake."

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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