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Pope Issues a Rare `Sorry'

Benedict XVI publicly apologizes over the reaction to his citation of material that faults Islam. Muslims say it doesn't go far enough.

September 18, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — In his first public appearance since igniting a firestorm in the Islamic world, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday said he was "deeply sorry" that Muslims were offended and outraged by his use of a medieval citation critical of their faith, saying it did not "in any way express my personal thought."

The pope used his weekly Angelus blessing, at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, to confront the most serious controversy of his 17-month-old papacy. For a pope, it was a highly unusual gesture of regret.

By making a personal and public apology, Benedict hoped to calm the fury that exploded after he delivered a major address last week at Germany's University of Regensburg in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who regarded some of the prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman."

Major Arab television networks gave considerable coverage to the pope's Sunday message; the Al Arabiya network carried it live. Initial reaction from Islamic groups was mixed, with many saying they still wanted a fuller apology.

In Somalia, gunmen shot an Italian nun to death outside a children's hospital in the capital. It was not immediately clear whether the shooting of Leonella Sgorbati, 64, was related to the papal controversy, but Somalian Islamic extremists had threatened to attack Catholics.

"We hope this remains an isolated act," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the Italian news agency ANSA. But he said he feared it could be "the fruit of the violence and irrationality" that have arisen from the pope's speech "without motive or justification."

The Italian Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said it had raised the level of the security alert in parts of the country in reaction to the international protests. National Police Chief Gianni De Gennaro, in a statement, called on authorities to be especially vigilant of Catholic sites, noting the presence in Italy of a radical Islamic minority.

At Castel Gandolfo, security was tighter than usual. Police sharpshooters overlooked the piazza where the crowd assembled to hear the pope. Guards screened the estimated 2,000 pilgrims, ushering them through metal detectors and checking purses and backpacks.

The pope, who had emerged on the balcony of his palazzo, had begun addressing the crowd when a huge downpour drenched everyone in sight. He chuckled and apologized for the weather, adding that rain was also a sign of God's work. Then he continued with the more serious matter at hand.

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims," he said, adding that the quote from Emperor Manuel II did not reflect his own opinion.

Benedict noted that on Saturday, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the No. 2 official in the Vatican, had offered a written clarification of the meaning of the pope's speech. The statement also relayed the pontiff's "deep regrets." But many of the pope's critics wanted to hear it from Benedict himself.

"I hope that this serves to appease hearts," Benedict said, "and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

Regardless of how Benedict's Sunday message is accepted, damage has been done to the Roman Catholic Church and its international mission, analysts said. In the minds of many Muslims, the pope has cemented what they see as his disdain for their faith, a perception that imperils inter-religious dialogue and could only further sour ties between Muslims and Christians at a time of global confrontation.

Several of the Islamic leaders who rose to condemn Benedict in the last several days have cast him as part of what they see as a vast Western conspiracy against Islam, and have put him in the same category as President Bush.

The pope's Regensburg lecture, to an audience of academics at the school where he taught theology in the 1970s, was a long and complex treatise on faith and reason. Among other elements, it said that violence could not be justified by religion, and he used the term jihad, which he defined as Islamic holy war, as an example.

The pope on Tuesday had quoted the emperor as saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The speech was designed to provoke a theological debate, Vatican officials said.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, apologized at least 10 times during his long papacy for sins committed by the Roman Catholic Church or its members -- including slavery, the conquest of indigenous populations in Latin America, and the Holocaust. But none of those acts of contrition was a personal statement about the consequences of the pope's own comments.

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