Vatican Struggles to Smother Islam Controversy

Nearly a week after Pope Benedict XVI made remarks seen as hostile to Islam, there's been very little let-up in the anger and protests among Muslims across the globe. On Sunday, the Pope said he was deeply sorry for having caused offense when he quoted a 14th-century text that describes some of the teachings of Islam as "evil and inhuman."

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Nearly a week after Pope Benedict made remarks seen as hostile to Islam, there's been no let-up in the anger and protests among Muslims across the globe. Yesterday the pope said he was deeply sorry for having caused offense -when he quoted a 14th century text that describes some of the teachings of Islam as evil and inhuman - in an address last Tuesday and Germany.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome. She joins us now. Sylvia, religious and political leaders throughout the Muslim world have been demanding a papal apology. Did they get that yet?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well his exact words were, I am deeply sorry for the reactions to a few passages of my speech considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. He insisted his words were misinterpreted and that the real sense of his speech was an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue with great mutual respect. In an interview today, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said that the pope's words had been heavily manipulated. And he ordered Vatican ambassadors in Muslim countries to illustrate and explain to religious and political leaders there, the original text of the speech, which also said that violence is not rational and therefore is incompatible with the nature of God.

To most analysts, the pope's words did not mean he has backed down. And Muslim reaction has been mixed. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt first said it was a sufficient apology, then later backtracked and said it wants a clear apology. In Turkey, one minister said being sorry and apologizing are two different things. But the head of the country's Directorate for Religious Affairs welcomed the clarification. Iran followed Morocco's lead and called back its ambassador to the Vatican in a sign of protest. A total of seven churches were set on fire in the West Bank, and the Vatican is very concerned that the killing of an Italian nun in Somalia could be linked to the uproar because it came right after a Somali cleric had condemned the pope's speech.

NEARY: How is all this likely to affect Catholic-Muslim relations in the future?

POGGIOLI: It's too early to say, especially because Benedict's approach to the dialogue with Islam differs from John Paul II. Benedict does not want interfaith encounters with Muslims because he does not put Catholicism and Islam on an equal footing. He's concerned about Europe losing its Christian identity - both to secularism and to the arrival of Muslim immigrants. He's interested, primarily, in what the Vatican calls a cultural and political dialogue with Islam, and in reciprocity - which means religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries. Vatican officials often cite the example of Saudi Arabia, where churches are banned; or the case of Turkey, where recently several priests have been killed.

NEARY: And what's the reaction there in Europe, Sylvia?

POGGIOLI: Well, several Muslim organizations here expressed relief and analysts point out that there were no street protests by Muslims in Europe against the pope. What I think is interesting is that editorial comment in several left-leaning European papers has tilted toward the pope. Britain's The Guardian said there cannot be dialogue without rigor and openness, and added that the Muslim world should also take pains to be thoughtful in its response and perhaps less quick to take offense. And the French paper Le Monde appealed to Muslim moderates, who it said are also victims of extremism, to speak out clearly against fundamentalism and violence. Otherwise, the paper said, the Christian-Muslim dialogue won't go anywhere.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

NEARY: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

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Vatican Statement on Pope's Remarks

Read Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's statement addressing the criticism in the Muslim world over Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about Islam and violence. The Vatican provided an English translation:

Given the reaction in Muslim quarters to certain passages of the Holy Father's address at the University of Regensburg, and the clarifications and explanations already presented through the Director of the Holy See Press Office, I would like to add the following:

The position of the Pope concerning Islam is unequivocally that expressed by the conciliar document Nostra Aetate: "The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting" (no. 3).

The Pope's option in favor of interreligious and intercultural dialogue is equally unequivocal. In his meeting with representatives of Muslim communities in Cologne, Germany, on 20 August 2005, he said that such dialogue between Christians and Muslims "cannot be reduced to an optional extra," adding: "The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other's identity."

As for the opinion of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, which he quoted during his Regensburg talk, the Holy Father did not mean, nor does he mean, to make that opinion his own in any way. He simply used it as a means to undertake — in an academic context, and as is evident from a complete and attentive reading of the text — certain reflections on the theme of the relationship between religion and violence in general, and to conclude with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come. On this point, it is worth recalling what Benedict XVI himself recently affirmed in his commemorative Message for the 20th anniversary of the Inter-religious Meeting of Prayer for Peace, initiated by his predecessor John Paul II at Assisi in October 1986: " ... demonstrations of violence cannot be attributed to religion as such but to the cultural limitations with which it is lived and develops in time. ... In fact, attestations of the close bond that exists between the relationship with God and the ethics of love are recorded in all great religious traditions."

The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions. Indeed it was he who, before the religious fervor of Muslim believers, warned secularized Western culture to guard against "the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom."

In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words so that, quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment, witness to the "Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men" may be reinforced, and collaboration may intensify "to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom" (Nostra Aetate no. 3).

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