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Pope Benedict ‘deeply sorry’ about reactions to speech

Pope Benedict XVI has apologised for the furore caused by a lecture he made in Germany where he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor who had referred to the "evil and inhuman" aspects of Islam, an address that stirred ire from some Muslims, but also triggered debate about free speech.

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims," the Pope said on 17 September at his summer residence near Rome. "These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."

Benedict’s statement came after protests from senior Muslim leaders in places including Britain, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey.

In Budapest, a European Protestant leader told journalists the use of "historical quotations" was not helpful as this could lead to misunderstandings, but that people must also be allowed to raise critical questions about Islam.

"I expect from Muslims that they respect the basic values of our coexistence," said the Rev. Thomas Wipf, the new president of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe who also heads the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.

On 16 September, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, reiterated the Pope’s "respect and esteem" for followers of Islam and that he remained firmly committed to inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

"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," said Benedict in his statement expressing regret.

Still, in India, shops, businesses and most schools were reported closed on 18 September in parts of Indian-administered Kashmir, where Muslims are a majority, in response to a strike call by separatists to protest about Benedict’s comments.

Cardinal Bertone in his statement said the papal speech had been intended as a reflection on the relationship in general between religion and violence, "with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come".

In London, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said on BBC radio that elements in all religions including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that could be used to promote violence.

"These religious faiths, because they are held by human beings who are very fallible, can be distorted in these ways and we all need to recognise that," he said, adding: "There is a sense of frustration among the most moderate and educated Muslims that they don’t really get a fair hearing. It goes quite deep."

In the speech made at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict had quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus who stated: "Show me just what Mohammed 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."

Benedict is scheduled to travel to Muslim-majority Turkey at the end of November and the country’s top Islamic cleric, Ali Bardakoglu, had described the comments in Benedict’s speech as "extraordinarily worrying, saddening and unfortunate" but later said he welcomed the Pope’s statement.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul signalled at the weekend that the Pope’s scheduled visit would still go ahead, despite the reactions in many parts of the Muslim world.

The Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera noted the killing in Mogadishu, Somalia, of Italian nun Leonella Sgorbati, 65, Mogadishu, and speculated whether this had been done by Islamic extremists in protest at the Pope’s words.

The La Repubblica newspaper published in Rome said the "debacle" following the Pope’s speech was more than a minor problem of communication but would oblige the Vatican to completely rethink its strategy on Islam.

(c) Ecumenical News International