Pope Benedict XVI did not intend to offend Muslim sensibilities with remarks about holy war, the Vatican said Thursday night, scrambling to defend the pontiff as anger built in the Islamic world over some of his remarks during his pilgrimage in Germany.
“It certainly wasn’t the intention of the Pope to carry out a deep examination of jihad [holy war] and on Muslim thought on it, much less to offend the sensibility of Muslim believers,” Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, who accompanied the pontiff on the trip, said in a statement after Benedict returned to Rome.
A few hours earlier, Turkey’s top Islamic cleric asked Benedict to apologiSe about the remarks and unleashed a string of accusations against Christianity, raising tensions before the pontiff’s planned visit to Turkey in November on what would be his first papal pilgrimage in a Muslim country.
Religious Affairs Directorate head Ali Bardakoglu, a cleric who sets the religious agenda for Turkey, said he was deeply offended by remarks about Islamic holy war made Tuesday during the pilgrimage to the pontiff’s homeland, and called the remarks “extraordinarily worrying, saddening and unfortunate.” Bardakoglu said that “if the Pope was reflecting the spite, hatred and enmity” of others in the Christian world, then the situation was even worse. The Pope made his remarks on Islam in a speech in which he quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and an educated Persian on the truths of Christianity and Islam. “The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,” the Pope said.
“He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what [the Prophet] Mohammad 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,”‘ he quoted the emperor as saying.
Clearly aware of the delicacy of the issue, Benedict added: “I quote,” twice before pronouncing the phrases on Islam and described them as “brusque,” while neither explicitly agreeing with nor repudiating them.
In Egypt, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, also called for an apology.
“The remarks do not express correct understanding of Islam and are merely wrong and distorted beliefs being repeated in the West,” Akef said in a statement Thursday evening. Akef said he was “astonished that such remarks come from someone who sits on top of the Catholic Church which has its influence on the public opinion in the West.”
The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, said it regretted “the Pope’s quote and for the other falsifications.” Islamist websites also unleashed a scathing campaign against the Pope.
Lombardi insisted that the pontiff respects Islam.
Benedict wants to “cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue towards the other religions and cultures, obviously also towards Islam,” Lombardi said in a statement released by the Vatican.
“It is opportune to note that that which is at the Pope’s heart is a clear and radical refusal of the religious motivation of violence,” Lombardi said.
“Proper consideration of the religious dimension is, in fact, an essential premise for a fruitful dialogue with the great cultures and religions of the world,” Lombardi said.
While in Germany, Lombardi said that the pontiff had not given an interpretation of Islam as “something violent”, although the spokesman said the religion contained both violent and non-violent strains.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Akef contended that the pope’s remarks “threaten world peace” and “pour oil on the fire and ignite the wrath of the whole Islamic world to prove the claims of enmity of politicians and religious men in the West to whatever is Islamic”. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference expressed hopes that “this sudden campaign does not reflect a new trend for the Vatican policy towards the Islamic religion.”
In Cologne, Germany, last year he urged Islamic leaders to take responsibility for their communities and teach their young to abhor violence.
Although officially secular Turkey is 99 per cent Muslim, the main purpose of the pope’s pilgrimage there is to meet with the spiritual leader of the world’s 200 million Orthodox, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, whose headquarters, for historical reasons, are in Istanbul.
As recently as Saturday, while flying to Germany, the pope mentioned Turkey as one of his next pilgrimages abroad.
In Pakistan, Muslim scholars and religious leaders criticised Pope Benedict’s remarks and urged him to play a positive role in bringing Islam and Christianity closer.
“It is very unfortunate that a religious leader of his stature is issuing statements which can fan religious disharmony,” Khurshid Ahmed, head of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, told AFP.
“The Pope’s attitude is very different from his predecessor. Instead of bringing Islam and Christianity closer, he is straining relations between the two religions,” Ahmed said.
“In the present political atmosphere such views can be exploited by those who are trying to malign Muslims and Islam.” “We expect the Pope to play a positive role in promoting relations between religions and civilisations.” “The Pope’s views about the role of Sharia and jihad are at variance with Muslim beliefs.”
Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a senior leader of the Jammiat Ulema-i-Islam Party and an MP, urged the Pope not to take inspiration from US President George W.Â Bush.
“The Pope is a respected personality not only for Christians but for Muslims also. He should not lower his stature by giving Bush-like statements,” he told AFP.
“Jihad is a tool for defence and we expect the Pope to speak against aggression,” he said.
“The Pope’s statement is highly irresponsible,” a senior Islamic scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamdi said.
“The concept of jihad is not to spread Islam with sword,” Ghamdi said in a statement.
“The Pope’s statement was an attempt to jeopardise a remarkable unity displayed by Christians and Muslims against recent Israeli aggression in Lebanon,” Shahid Shamsi, spokesman for the main Jamaat-i-Islami Party said.Â
In Kuwait, two high-ranking Islamist officials Thursday called on Pope Benedict XVI to apologise for his remarks.
Haken Mutairi, secretary general of the emirate’s Umma (Islamic Nation) party, urged the pope to to apologise immediately “to the Muslim world for his calumnies against the Prophet Mohammad and Islam”.
Mutairi hit out at the Pope’s “unaccustomed and unprecedented” remarks, and linked the Catholic Church leader’s comments to “new Western wars currently under way in the Muslim world in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.”
The pope’s statements amounted to “the pursuit of crusades,” he added.
“I call on all Arab and Islamic states to recall their ambassadors from the Vatican and expel those from the Vatican until the Pope says he is sorry for the wrong done to the Prophet and to Islam, which preaches peace, tolerance, justice and equality,” Mutairi told AFP.
He also urged Christian and Muslim religious leaders to “spread the values of tolerance and clemency preached by the prophets Jesus and Mohammad”.
Sayed Baqer Mohri, head of the assembly of Shiite ulemas, or theologians, in Kuwait, labelled the Pope’s comments “unrealistic and unjustified”, and also called on him to apologise.
“His unjustified attack on Islam and the Prophet Mohammad clearly contradicts his call for dialogue between civilisations,” Mohri said. “It opens the way to animosity between religions.
“We demand that the Pope make a public apology” to help bring an end to animosity, he added.