Religious leaders across Mideast rage against pope's comments on Islam

Friday, September 15th 2006, 8:44 am
By: News On 6

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Turkey's ruling Islamic-rooted party joined a wave of criticism of Pope Benedict XVI on Friday, accusing him of trying to revive the spirit of the Crusades with remarks he made about the Muslim faith.

Muslim leaders elsewhere in the world also expressed dismay, with Pakistan's parliament unanimously condemning the pope.

The Vatican said the pope did not intend the remarks _ made in Germany on Tuesday during an address at a university _ to be offensive.

Benedict quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam.

``The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,'' the pope said. ``He said, I quote, '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 did not explicitly agree with the statement nor repudiate it.

The comments raised tensions ahead of his planned visit to Turkey in November _ his first pilgrimage to a Muslim country.

Salih Kapusuz, a deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party, said Benedict's remarks were either ``the result of pitiful ignorance'' about Islam and its prophet, or a deliberate distortion.

``He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages. He is a poor thing that has not benefited from the spirit of reform in the Christian world,'' Kapusuz was quoted as saying by the state-owned Anatolia news agency. ``It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades.''

``Benedict, the author of such unfortunate and insolent remarks, is going down in history for his words,'' he said. ``He is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as (Adolf) Hitler and (Benito) Mussolini.''

Turkey's staunchly secular opposition party also demanded that Benedict apologize to Muslims before his visit to Turkey.

``The pope has thrown gasoline onto the fire ... in a world where the risk of a clash between religions is high,'' said Haluk Koc, deputy head of the Republican People's Party, as a small group of protesters left a black wreath in front of the Vatican's embassy in Ankara.

On Thursday, Turkey's top Islamic cleric, Ali Bardakoglu, asked Benedict to apologize for the remarks and unleashed a string of accusations against Christianity.

In Beirut, Lebanon's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric denounced the remarks Friday and demanded the pope personally apologize for insulting Islam.

``We do not accept the apology through Vatican channels ... and ask him (Benedict) to offer a personal apology _ not through his officials _ to Muslims for this false reading (of Islam),'' Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah told worshippers in his Friday prayers sermon.

After Benedict returned to Italy on Thursday, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, ``It certainly wasn't the intention of the pope to carry out a deep examination of jihad (holy war) and on Muslim thought on it, much less to offend the sensibility of Muslim believers.''

Lombardi insisted the pope respects Islam. Benedict wants to ``cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, obviously also toward Islam,'' he said.

In a significant development Friday, the pope appointed Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, a French prelate with experience in the Muslim world, as the Vatican's new foreign minister.

But anger still swept across the Muslim world, with Pakistan's parliament unanimously adopting a resolution condemning the pope for making what it called ``derogatory'' comments about Islam, and seeking an apology from him.

``Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence,'' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.

``What he has done is that he has quoted very offensive remarks by some emperor hundreds of years ago,'' she added. ``It is not helpful (because) we have been trying to bridge the gap, calling for dialogue and understanding between religions.''

Aslam said Muslims had a long history of tolerance, adding that when the Catholic kingdom of Spain expelled its Jewish population in 1492 they were welcomed by Muslim nations such as the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Indonesia, which has more Muslims than any other in the world, had no immediate response to the pope's comments, but religious groups were quick to protest, condemning the words as insensitive and damaging.

``A respected religious leader like the pope should not say such things, especially as nations across the globe are struggling to find ways to bridge differences between faiths and build understanding,'' said Ma'ruf Amin, a member of Indonesia Council of Clerics, the country's highest Islamic body.

``Such words hurt Muslims all over the world,'' he said.

The head of Britain's largest Muslim body said it was disturbed by the pope's use of a 14th century passage. The Muslim Council, which represents 400 groups in Britain, said the emperor's views were ``ill-informed and frankly bigoted.''

``One would expect a religious leader such as the pope to act and speak with responsibility and repudiate the Byzantine emperor's views in the interests of truth and harmonious relations between the followers of Islam and Catholicism,'' said Muhammad Abdul Bari, the council's secretary-general.

Elsewhere, Syria's grand mufti, the country's top Sunni Muslim religious authority, sent a letter to the Pope saying he feared the comments would worsen interfaith relations.

In Cairo, Egypt, about 100 demonstrators gathered in an anti-Vatican protest outside the al-Azhar mosque, chanting ``Oh Crusaders, oh cowards! Down with the pope!''

Benedict, who has made the fight against growing secularism in Western society a theme of his pontificate, is expected to visit Turkey in late November. He was invited by the staunchly secularist Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who said the invitation was part of an effort to strengthen dialogue between religions.