Tensions still high in Mideast, Asia over pope's comments on Islam


Monday, September 18th 2006, 5:29 am
By: News On 6


CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ An al-Qaida-linked extremist group warned Pope Benedict XVI on Monday that he and the West were ``doomed,'' as protesters returned to the streets across the Muslim world to demand more of an apology from the pontiff for his remarks about Islam and violence.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of Sunni Arab extremist groups that includes al-Qaida in Iraq, issued a statement on a Web forum vowing to continue its holy war against the West. The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified.

The group said Muslims would be victorious and addressed the pope as ``the worshipper of the cross'' saying ``you and the West are doomed as you can see from the defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. ... We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion (to Islam) or (killed by) the sword.''

Islam forbids drinking alcohol and requires non-Muslims to pay a head tax to safeguard their lives if conquered by Muslims. They are exempt if they convert to Islam.

In Indian-controlled Kashmir, meanwhile, shops, businesses and schools shut down in response to a strike call by the head of a hard-line Muslim separatist leader to denounce Benedict. For the third day running, people burned tires and shouted ``Down with the pope.''

Protests also raged in Iraq, where angry demonstrators burned an effigy of the pope in Basra, and in Indonesia, where more than 100 people rallied in front of the heavily guarded Vatican Embassy in Jakarta, waving banners that said the ``Pope is building religion on hatred.''

The pope on Sunday said he was ``deeply sorry'' about the angry reaction to his speech last week in which he cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of Islam's Prophet Muhammad as ``evil and inhuman'' and referred to spreading Islam ``by the sword.''

Benedict said the remarks came from a text that didn't reflect his own opinion.

``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,'' he said during his weekly appearance before pilgrims in Italy.

The statement of regret _ the pope's second in two days _ helped ease some tensions.

In Turkey, where outrage against Benedict's remarks had been swift, Catholic bishops decided Monday that no changes were necessary in his upcoming visit in November _ his first to a Muslim country, Vatican spokesman George Marovic said.

Marovic said the trip was expected to go on as planned, and the bishops had discussed the details of a religious ceremony the pontiff is to lead in Istanbul.

However, State Minister Mehmet Aydin, who oversees the religious affairs in Turkey, said he expected Turkish authorities to cancel the visit if Benedict does not offer a full apology.

``We are expecting the authorities to unilaterally cancel this visit. The pope's coming to Turkey isn't going to foment the uniting of civilizations, but a clash of civilizations,'' he said.

The secretary-general of the Turkish HUKUK-DER law association submitted a request to the Justice Ministry asking that the pope be arrested upon entering Turkey.

The appeal by Fikret Karabekmez, a former legislator for the banned pro-Islamic Welfare Party, called for Benedict to be tried under several Turkish laws, among them obstruction of freedom of belief, encouraging discrimination based on religion, and inciting religious hatred.

A prosecutor in the ministry will evaluate the request and decide whether to open a case.

Angry reactions also persisted in other corners of the Muslim world, where many demanded more of an apology by the pope than Sunday's statement of regret.

``Muslims have all this while felt oppressed, and the statement by the pope saying he is sorry about the angry reaction is inadequate to calm the anger _ more so because he is the highest leader of the Vatican,'' Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on national television in Pakistan the pope had apparently forgotten it was Christianity that was spread by the sword during the Crusades.

Elsewhere, protesters rallied in the city of Muzaffarabad, in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir. ``His apology is not sufficient because he did not say that what he said was wrong,'' said Uzair Ahmed, from Pasban-e-Hurriyat, a Pakistani political group.

Even in China, where the government exerts tight controls over religious activities, a top religious official said Benedict had insulted the nation's Muslims.

``This has gravely hurt the feelings of the Muslims across the world, including those from China,'' Chen Guangyuan, president of Islamic Association of China, was quoted as saying in an interview with the Xinhua news agency.

In the Middle East, where Muslims threw firebombs at seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the weekend, Christian leaders posted guards outside some churches.

``We are afraid,'' said Sonia Kobatazi, a Christian Lebanese, after Mass at the Maronite Christian St. George Cathedral in Beirut, Lebanon, where about a dozen policemen carrying automatic weapons stood guard.

Christians _ a minority in the Mideast that varies from nearly 40 percent in Lebanon to tiny communities in the Gulf states _ generally live in peace with the majority Muslims. But relations are sometimes strained and outbreaks of violence have occurred in recent years. Some worry the flap over the pope will lead to a new round.

The protests and violence have stirred up memories of the fury over cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper of the Prophet Muhammad. Angry demonstrations took place in many countries, and some of the violence was directed at Western targets and Christian churches.