Pope’s speech ignites international anger

VATICAN CITY – Some Muslim leaders accepted Pope Benedict XVI’s explanation yesterday of his remarks on Islam and violence. Others said it wasn’t enough, but cautioned followers against a violent backlash after attacks on churches in Palestinian areas and the slaying of a nun in Somalia.

The pontiff said he was “deeply sorry” his speech last week in Germany offended Muslims, particularly his quoting of a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of Islam’s founder as “evil and inhuman” and referred to spreading Islam “by the sword.”

He said those words did not reflect his own opinions.

“I hope that this serves to appease hearts 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,” the pope said during his weekly Sunday appearance before pilgrims.

Seeking to placate spreading Muslim anger, Vatican officials previously said the pope held Islam in high esteem and stressed that the central thrust of his speech was to condemn the use of any religious motivation for violence, whatever the religion.

While Benedict expressed regret his speech caused hurt, he did not retract what he said or say he was sorry he uttered what proved to be explosive words.

Anger was still intense in Muslim lands.

Two churches were set on fire in the West Bank, raising to at least seven the number of church attacks in Palestinian areas over the weekend blamed on outrage sparked by the speech.

There was also concern that the furor was behind the shooting death of an Italian missionary nun at the hospital where she worked for years in the Horn of Africa nation of Somalia. The killing came just hours after a Somali cleric condemned the pope’s speech.

“Let’s hope that it will be an isolated fact,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA.

He said the Vatican was “following with concern the consequences of this wave of hate, hoping that it does not lead to grave consequences for the church in the world.”

Police across Italy were ordered to step up security out of concern that the anger could cause Roman Catholic sites to become terrorist targets. Police outside the pope’s summer palace confiscated metal-tipped umbrellas and bottles of liquids from faithful.

Benedict’s expression of sorrow for the offense he caused satisfied some Islamic leaders.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a banned group but still the largest Islamic movement in that country, said the outrage was justified but predicted it would subside quickly.

“Our relations with Christians should remain good, civilized and cooperative,” Mohammed Mahdi Akef told The Associated Press in Cairo.

Germany’s Central Council of Muslims welcomed the pope’s comments yesterday as “the most important step to calm the protest” and urged the Vatican to seek discussion with Muslim s to avoid lasting damage.

But others were still demanding an apology for the words, including in Turkey, where questions have been raised about whether Benedict should go ahead with a visit scheduled for November as the first trip of his papacy to a Muslim nation.

“It is very saddening. The Islamic world is expecting an explanation from the pope himself,” Turkish State Minister Mehmet Aydin told reporters in Istanbul. “You either have to say this ‘I’m sorry’ in a proper way or not say it at all. Are you sorry for saying such a thing or because of its consequences?”

Mohammad al-Nujemi, a professor at the Institute of Judicial and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, expressed dismay at what he called Benedict “evading apology.”

“His statements might give terrorists and al-Qaida followers legitimacy that there is really an attempt to hurt Muslims,” al-Nujemi told Al-Arabiya television.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier urged world religious leaders to show “responsibility and restraint” to avoid what he called “extremes” in relations between faiths.