Pope takes rare step after outcry

He offers personal apology for citing `evil' reference to Islam

September 18, 2006|By New York Times News Service

ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI sought yesterday to extinguish days of anger and protest among Muslims by issuing an extraordinary personal apology for having caused offense with a speech last week that had a reference to Islam as "evil and inhuman."

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address," the pope told pilgrims at the summer papal palace of Castel Gandolfo, "which were considered offensive."

"These were in fact quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought," the pope, 79, said in Italian, according to the official English translation.

"The true meaning of my address," he said, "in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

His statement came amid much worry in the church about violence and any erosion of the status of the papacy as a neutral figure for peace among faiths. In Somalia yesterday, the Italian Foreign Ministry reported, an Italian nun was shot to death, although it was unclear whether this was related to the pope's remarks. A day earlier, five churches were firebombed in the West Bank and one in Iraq.

Although Pope Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, issued several apologies for the historical failings of the church, experts said it appeared to be the first time in recent memory that a pope had made such a direct statement of personal regret.

"This is really, really abnormal," said Alberto Melloni, professor of history at the University of Modena who has written several books on the Vatican. "It's never happened, as far as I know."

Beyond the anger among Muslims, the pope's comments have also provoked a debate in Italy and among many Catholics, on issues including whether he appreciated the reaction he would provoke and whether the pope's speeches, which he usually writes himself, are properly vetted by a Vatican undergoing a bureaucratic transition.

Several Vatican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said they had expressed concern before the speech was delivered that it might be negatively received by Muslims or be misconstrued by the news media as an attack on Islam.

And for many conservatives here, fearful of attacks in the name of Islam and rising Muslim immigration in Europe, the remarks of the pope - despite his denial that he meant to criticize - amounted to a rare public airing of a delicate concern many of them share: whether Islam is at the moment especially prone to violence.

Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, said Saturday that the comments amounted to "an opening, a positive provocation. And so for this reason he is a great pope, with a great intelligence."

The pope made his own public statement yesterday after two other clarifications were issued by senior Vatican officials since the speech was delivered last Tuesday at Regensburg University, in Germany, where the German-born pope used to teach theology. The speech was largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason, for walling belief in God out of science and philosophy. But he began by recounting a conversation on the truths of Christianity and Islam that took place between a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian scholar.

"He said, I quote, `Show me just what Muhammad 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,'" the pope said.

He also briefly discussed the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as "holy war" and said that violence in the name of religion was contrary to God's nature and to reason.

At the same time, without mentioning Islam specifically, he suggested reason as the basis for "that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

In the speech, he did not say whether he agreed with the quotations about violence and Islam - but yesterday he distanced himself strongly from them.

It was not immediately clear whether this would allay the anger, which recalled the furor this year after European newspapers published cartoons unflattering to the Prophet Muhammad.

In Egypt, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been critical of the pope, initially said yesterday that the pope's remarks represented a "good step toward an apology." Later comments from the group, however, seemed to cast doubt on whether it fully accepted the pope's statement.

In Gaza, the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya, denounced attacks on a half-dozen churches there and in the West Bank. In Bethlehem, sacred to Christians as the birthplace of Jesus and home to many Arab Christians, police presence was increased.

Yesterday, protests continued around the Muslim world.

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