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Vatican says pope did not intend offense to Muslims on holy war remarks

By John Thavis and Michael Lawton


Retrieved from Catholic News Service on September 15, 2006

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The Vatican responded to a wave of Muslim indignation over recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI, saying the pope did not intend to "offend the sensibilities of Muslim faithful."

Some of the strongest criticism of the pope came from Islamic leaders in Turkey, where the pontiff is scheduled to travel this fall. Church officials said Sept. 15 that there were no immediate plans to cancel or postpone the papal trip.

Vatican officials invited Muslim leaders to read the full text of the papal address, saying it would make clear that the pope was speaking in favor of all religions and not against Islam.

In his talk at the University of Regensburg, Germany, Sept. 12, the pope's main theme was how reason and faith must be reconciled in the West, but he introduced it by quoting a medieval emperor on the errors of Islam and jihad, or holy war. The pope did not say whether he endorsed the 600-year-old criticisms of Islam that he quoted.

A few hours after the pope returned from Germany Sept. 14, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a written statement in the face of mounting criticism from Islamic representatives. Father Lombardi reviewed the papal speech, saying it was very important to the pope that there be a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence."

But he said the pope did not intend to make a critical assessment of Islam, much less offend Muslims. On the contrary, Father Lombardi said, the pope's talk focused primarily on the religious shortcomings of the West and the reluctance of truly religious cultures to accept a Western "exclusion of the divine."

"What is clear, then, is the Holy Father's desire to cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward other religions and cultures, including, of course, Islam," the Vatican spokesman said.

Father Lombardi's statement was being translated into Arabic, in the hope that it would allay Muslim resentment, Vatican sources said.

After reading press reports of the papal speech, Ali Bardakoglu, the head of Turkey's directorate of religious affairs, said Sept. 14 that the pope had offended Muslims and should apologize. He questioned whether the pope should visit Turkey as planned in late November; it would be the pontiff's first visit to a Muslim country.

"I do not see any use in somebody visiting the Islamic world who thinks in this way about the holy prophet of Islam. He should first rid himself of feelings of hate," Bardakoglu told Turkish television.

"I hope the pope apologizes and realizes how close he is to spoiling any chance of peace," he said.

Bishop Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar in Anatolia, the Asian part of modern Turkey, said the pope's remarks were being taken out of context by Turkish media, prompting widespread criticism of the pontiff.

"Even if there are pressures for the pope to apologize or cancel his trip, I think the Holy Father will follow the program that has been prepared for the trip," he told AsiaNews, a Rome-based missionary news agency.

At the Vatican, one source said Sept. 15 that the trip plans were going ahead, at least for now. At the moment, he said, the critical reactions to the pope's speech have come through the media and not at the diplomatic level.

Pakistan's Parliament Sept. 15 passed a resolution criticizing the pope for making what it called "derogatory" comments about Islam and asking him to apologize for offending Muslim sentiments.

In Egypt, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood said the pope had expressed "wrong and distorted beliefs" about Islam. A similar statement came from the Indonesian Mujahedin Council.

Several Vatican officials expressed deep dismay that Muslim reactions were based on news media accounts of the papal speech.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, who heads the Vatican council that dialogues with Muslims, said a careful reading would show that the pope had offered to Islam "an outstretched hand" in the battle against an oversecularized global culture.

"I invite our Muslim friends of goodwill to take the pope's text in hand and read it in its entirety and meditate on it. It will be clear that this can in no way be considered an attack on Islam but is rather an outstretched hand, because it defends the value of humanity's religious cultures, including Islam," the cardinal said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Cardinal Poupard, head of the pontifical councils for Interreligious Dialogue and for Culture, pointed out that in quoting the 14th-century criticism of Islam, the pope had noted the "startling brusqueness" of the language.

"With this, the pope was signaling that he was not endorsing these words," Cardinal Poupard said.

The cardinal said the idea that Islam has produced "only evil and inhuman" things, as expressed by the Byzantine emperor quoted by the pope, "cannot be held by whoever accepts the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on non-Christian religions."

Cardinal Poupard said the main point of the pope's speech was to show that religious cultures view efforts to "exclude the divine" as an attack on their strongest convictions.

"Don't you think a sincere Muslim should be happy at this statement?" the cardinal said.

There had been some fears in Germany that the pope's lecture might be misunderstood by Muslims. Father Hans Kung, a dissident Swiss theologian, said it would not be taken positively by many Muslims. "It urgently needs to be put into context," he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

The secretary-general of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, said he did not see the lecture as an attack on Muslims.

Mazyek told the German newspaper: "Against the background of the bloody forced Christianization in South America, the Crusades in the Muslim world, the co-option of the church by the Hitler regime, even the invention of the expression 'holy war,' which originally comes from the mouth of (Pope) Urban II, it would fill me with some concern if the church would come and take a superior attitude to the extremist activities of other religious communities."

He said he was sure the pope had not meant that.