PRAGUE, September 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Muslims around the world have intensified their protests over controversial remarks on Islam this week by Pope Benedict XVI.
From France and Iraq to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, Muslims have heeded calls by Muslim leaders and taken to the streets to condemn remarks made on September 12 by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Two churches in the West Bank were firebombed today in an apparent reaction to the pope's remarks and the radical Taliban movement in Afghanistan also condemned the pope's comments.
Even the U.S. newspaper "The New York Times," in an editorial piece, urged the pope to apologize for what he said.
And what did he say?
Speaking at Regensburg University, where he taught in the 1970s, the Bavarian-born pope chose to quote a written criticism of Islam by Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who ruled the Orthodox Christian Empire from what is now Istanbul in the 1300s.
"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new," Emperor Manuel said, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Benedict repeatedly quoted the emperor's argument that spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable, adding that "violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."
The quotations appeared as an illustration of the rapprochement of Christianity and the ancient Greek traditions of rational inquiry, a rapprochement that Benedict called decisive for Christian thought.
Muslims, however, say the comments were highly offensive.
The International Fallout
Speaking at a demonstration in Paris, a protester named Muhammad said he thought "it would be better for the pope to speak of dialogue between religions and of peace. He stokes the fire and accuses Islam of being irrational. He is a person who is preparing a crusade, it seems, and it goes in the same tendency of Bush. And that is causing hurt around the world – for Christians, Muslims, and Jews."
Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the French Council of Muslim Culture, said that the pope should be able to distinguish between Islam as a religion and radical Islamism. "Islam is a religion, Islamism is an ideology," Boubakeur said. "We think maybe there is a misinterpretation that deserves an explanation. I don't ask for an excuse or an apology, no, but a clarification of the attitude of the Church."
The Vatican has been trying to offer just that -- a clarification -- but so far to little avail.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said today that the pope "is very sorry that some passages of his speech may have sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers."
Bertone said the pope is "extremely upset" that Muslims were offended by his words. He said the pope's words have been interpreted in a way that does not at all correspond to his intentions.
Among the few international leaders to rally to the pope's side was his compatriot Angela Merkel. The German chancellor, in an interview in the "Bild" daily on September 16, said the protesters misunderstood the pope's aim, which Merkel said was "an invitation to dialogue between religions."
She said the pope had emphasized "a decisive and uncompromising renunciation of all forms of violence in the name of religion."
Amid minor street protests in Baghdad, the Vatican's envoy to Iraq, Thomas Halim Habib, also reiterated what the Church says was the pope's main point: that faith and religion can never be used "to incite violence."
"The pope did not want to give a lecture interpreting Islam and jihad or offend the feelings of faithful Muslims," Habib said.
Yet that is just what he has done, according to Pakistan's parliament, which has passed a resolution condemning the pope's comments and urging him to retract them.
Pope Benedict And Islam
Benedict already had 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 grounds that its Muslim heritage is fundamentally different from Europe's Christian roots.
Turkey is the first Muslim country that Benedict is scheduled to visit, in November.
Turkey's top cleric and head of the Religious Affairs directorate, Ali Bardakoglu, says the pope has a great deal of explaining to do ahead of his trip.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the pope to issue an apology.
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