LIANE HANSEN, host:
Today, Pope Benedict XVI said he regrets the reaction to comments he made on Islam, which many Muslims say were offensive. With pressure mounting that he issue a personal apology, there was intense worldwide anticipation for the live broadcast of his Sunday Blessing from papal summer residence. Benedict had made the remarks in a long academic speech in his native Germany last Tuesday, in which he quoted a 14th century Christian description of Islam as evil and inhuman.
Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome.
Sylvia, what exactly did the pope say today?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, he said that the medieval text he had quoted from did not express his personal opinion and that he hopes his clarification will help calm the situation, adding that he wants a frank and sincere dialogue based on great mutual respect.
He appeared really serene and smiling, and he quipped often about the pouring rain drenching the pilgrims below his balcony. And according to the Italian media, security was on high alert after threats against the pope and the Vatican appeared on extremist Islamic websites.
He spoke very briefly, and essentially repeated and did not go beyond the official statement issued yesterday by the Vatican that did not fully placate Muslim anger, with many religious leaders demanding a formal apology. And in the West Bank, Christian churches were set on fire.
HANSEN: Was the pope naïve when he gave this speech, or did he know he was going to get this reaction?
POGGIOLI: Well, the Vatican position is that he was speaking as a scholar in the university where he used to teach theology, addressing fellow scholars. They say the speech was about how faith and reason must be joined in the contemporary world and that violence is not rational, and therefore is incompatible with the nature of God. But several analysts pointed out some ambivalence. By quoting the thoughts of the 14th century Byzantine emperor on jihad - or holy war - Benedict implied, at least, that the God of Islam is not rational while the God of Christianity is rational.
Most analysts of the Vatican agree that Benedict could have not been completely unaware of the impact of these words would have on the Muslim world.
HANSEN: Benedict was very close to his predecessor, John Paul II. Is Benedict taking a different position on Islam?
POGGIOLI: Well, he has never hidden his dislike for the inter-religious meetings John Paul promoted, fearing the faithful would get the impression that Catholicism and Islam are on the same footing. Moreover, this is a Eurocentric pope, and one of his prime concerns is Europe's loss of faith and the memory of its Christian roots. Many analysts say that Benedict fears that in an increasingly secular and multi-cultural Europe, Catholicism will become just one option on the religious table.
At the same time, he sees Muslim immigrants in Europe as more comfortable and self-assured in manifesting their religion, and therefore as a threat to Christian values.
HANSEN: So what do you think the pope's vision is for relations between Christians and Muslims?
POGGIOLI: He wants a political and cultural dialogue with Muslim leaders, not an interfaith relationship. And one of the first signs of his harder line was the removal from office of the Vatican's top official dealing with the Islamic world.
And at the top of Benedict's agenda is reciprocity, which is the buzzword for religious freedom of Christians in majority Muslim countries. For example, Vatican officials will often point out that while millions of Saudi Arabian dollars financed Europe's biggest mosque here in Rome, not only are Christian churches banned there, Bibles can't be imported, and priests are under threat of arrest. And the Vatican has been concerned about anti-Christian actions in Turkey - where several priests have been killed - and about church burnings in Pakistan and Nigeria.
And now it's not clear whether the pope's scheduled visit to Turkey in November is still on. But despite the specter of an Islam versus West confrontation, some European commentators suggest that something good might come of this entire affair. They hope moderate Muslims in Europe and in the broader Islamic world, who also feel threatened by Islamist violence, will find their voice and come out more forcefully against extremism and fundamentalism.
HANSEN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.
Sylvia, thanks very much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.
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