Benedict's remark was certainly curious, given the fact that it comes just two months before his first scheduled trip as Pope to a Muslim country, Turkey.
examination of jihad and on Muslim thought on it, much less to offend
the sensibility of Muslim believers."
And it has forced the Vatican press office into damage control, with spokesman Federico Lombardi seeking to clarify the pope's comments after a wave of outrage from across the Muslim world.
"It certainly wasn't the intention of the pope to carry out a deep examination of jihad and on Muslim thought on it, much less to offend the sensibility of Muslim believers," Lombardi said. "On the contrary, in the Holy Father's speech, there clearly appears a warning to Western culture to avoid [having] contempt for God and cynicism that considers offending that which is sacred to be a civil right."
Speaking on September 12 at Germany's Regensburg University, where he taught theology in the 1970s, the Bavarian-born pope chose to quote a written criticism of Islam by Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. Manuel ruled the Orthodox Christian empire from what is now Istanbul in the 1300s.
Benedict quoted a conversation that the emperor wrote about having with "an educated Persian." The quote read: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Benedict then repeatedly quoted Manuel's argument that spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable, adding, "Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."
The quotations from the Byzantine emperor appeared in the speech as an illustration of the rapprochement of biblical religion and Greek traditions of rational inquiry -- a rapprochement Benedict called decisive for Christian thought.
"Clearly the pope is concerned about the fact that some people act in a violent way claming that God is behind their actions," says British author Gerard O'Connell, a veteran Vatican watcher based in Rome.
"For the pope, this would be unreasonable; it would be contrary to the nature of God," O'Connell continues. "Now, why he would choose [to cite] the text of the emperor -- I don't think any of us knows."
Muslim World Outraged
Indeed, the reaction from the Muslim world has been swift.
Pakistan's National Assembly, the parliament's lower house, unanimously passed a resolution condemning the pope's comments. The resolution said the pope's statement "has hurt sentiments of Muslims" and called on him to retract it.
Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, told Reuters the remarks could hurt "harmonious" relations between Muslims and Catholics.
In New Delhi, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the chief cleric of the historic Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, urged Muslims at Friday prayers to force the pope to apologize.
In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he was worried the pope's statements might upset efforts to bring about a rapprochement between West and East.
Pope Attacking Secularization, Not Islam
But at the Vatican, spokesman Lombardi said that the pope's speech primarily reflected his deep concern over the secularization of Western society.
Religion is so marginalized there, Lombardi said, that the pope believes the Western world lacks the basic understanding to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Muslim world.
"Right at the end of his speech at the University of Regensburg, the speech that is being argued about, Benedict XVI affirmed verbatim: 'The world's deeply religious cultures see the exclusion of the sacred from the universality of reason as an attack on their most intimate convictions. A reason that is deaf to that which is sacred and relegates religion to a subculture is incapable of finding a place in the dialogue between cultures,'" Lombardi said.
The highly public flap over the pope's speech recalls the international row earlier this year over Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. Though the Vatican opposed the cartoons, saying they were offensive to Muslims, the protests they generated seemed to deepen the divide between Islamic culture and the West.
Turkey Visit Looms
Now, Muslim criticism of Benedict appears likely to continue ahead of his scheduled trip to Turkey in late November.
Benedict already has a reputation for taking a tougher line on Islam than his predecessor, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II.
For example, a year before becoming pope, Benedict argued that Turkey should not be allowed into the European Union on the basis that its Muslim heritage is fundamentally different from Europe's Christian roots.
O'Connell, who has written extensively about the pope, says the pressure is now likely to be on Benedict to clarify his stance ahead of the Turkey trip.
"That's a major event and I think we will probably see a very articulate speech on the whole question of relations between Christians and Muslims during that visit," he says. "I think that the pope is trying to understand this religion, and I expect that he will make some very clear statement clarifying where he stands, in case there is confusion still when he goes to Turkey."
To start with, Turkey's top Islamic cleric wants Benedict to apologize.
Speaking on September 13, Religious Affairs Directorate head Ali Bardakoglu said he was deeply offended by the pope's remarks. He also unleashed a string of accusations against Christianity -- including recalling atrocities committed by Roman Catholic crusaders against Muslims -- raising tensions before the pontiff's first pilgrimage to a Muslim country.
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
READCONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)
LISTENListen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
Real Audio Windows Media
LISTENListen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
Real Audio Windows Media
THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.