Pope Faces Crisis as Muslim Outcry Grows

Posted in Religion and Politics | 17-Sep-06 | Author: Ian Fisher| Source: The New York Times

A Palestinian boy held up a copy of the Koran during a protest rally on Friday in Gaza over remarks about Islam made by Pope Benedict XVI.

ROME, Sept. 15 — Pope Benedict XVI came under increasing critical fire t0day over comments he made about Islam, as Muslim leaders around the world angrily accused him of dividing religions and demanded an apology.

In Britain, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Indonesia, Muslim leaders registered their protest. The Parliament in Pakistan passed a resolution against the pope’s statements, and the government later summoned the Vatican envoy to express official displeasure. In Lebanon, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the most senior Shiite cleric, demanded “a personal apology — not through his envoys.”

And emotion spilled over in Turkey, where Benedict has scheduled a visit in November, as a top official in the Islamic-rooted ruling party said that the pope is “going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.”

“He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages,” the official, Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s government, was quoted on the state-owned Anatolia news agency. “It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades.”

Reaction to the pope’s remarks — in which he quoted a description of Islam in the 14th century as “evil and inhuman” — has presented Benedict with the first full-blown crisis of his year-and-a-half papacy. Already some in Turkey have questioned whether he should make the visit, which would be the pope’s first trip to a Muslim country. Many Muslims are also comparing his comments with the unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad which stoked deep Muslim anger earlier this year.

But unlike the cartoons crisis, the reaction has been verbal rather than violent. In Gaza, a grenade was thrown today at one of the gates of the Roman Orthodox church, though no one claimed responsibility and it was unclear if the incident was related to the pope’s statements.

The Vatican released no official comment today. On Thursday, as Benedict returned from a six-day trip to Germany, the pope’s chief spokesman said that he had not intended to “offend the sensibility of Muslim believers.”

Meantime, other top Vatican officials also sought to tamp down the furor.

“I am convinced the pope did not mean to assume a position against Islam,” a leading German cardinal, Walter Kasper, told the Italian daily newspaper, La Repubblica.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, a French prelate with experience in the Islamic world, was appointed today as the Vatican’s new foreign minister. He told Agence France-Presse: “The dialogue between different civilizations, cultures and religions — which nobody can hide from — will be one of the great questions which I will tackle in my new job.”

In a major speech at Regensburg University, where Benedict had taught theology, the pope delivered a long, scholarly address on reason and faith in the West. But he began his speech by recounting a conversation between the 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 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. ’ ’’

While making clear he was quoting someone else, Benedict he did not say whether he agreed or disagreed with the statement.

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

But he also suggested reason as the basis for “that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

Benedict, a respected theologian, is said to write many speeches himself, and some commentators in the Italian press speculated that the Vatican would be forced into a more stringent review of his statements in the future.

The controversy came as a new top Vatican hierarchy is being installed. Clearly its first job will be to contain the controversy. In addition to appointing Archbishop Mamberti as foreign minister, the pope installed a new secretary of state, the Vatican’s highest position after the pope. He is Cardinal Tarcisco Bertone, 71, an Italian and longtime colleague of the pope’s.

Amid the angry reaction, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who met with the pope on his trip there, defended his speech.

“Whoever criticizes the Pope misunderstood the aim of his speech,” she was quoted as saying by the Bild newspaper. “It was an invitation to dialogue between religions and the Pope expressly spoke in favor of this dialogue, which is something I also support and consider urgent and necessary.”

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad for this article.