VATICAN CITY, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict said on Wednesday that his use of medieval quotes portraying a violent Islam did not reflect his views and were misunderstood, but he did not give the clear apology still demanded by many Muslims.
The leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, whose speech last week has provoked al Qaeda groups to declare war on the Church, Iraqis to burn the Pope’s effigy and Turks to petition for his arrest, said he had not meant to cause offence.
Speaking amid tighter security at his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, the Pope repeated the thrust of remarks made on Sunday that his words had been misunderstood. He expressed his “profound respect” for Muslims and encouraged more dialogue among religions and cultures.
Even sympathetic observers say the Pope was clumsy to quote 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus saying that everything the Prophet Mohammad brought was evil, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.
But the Pope, a former theology professor, invited his listeners to re-read his text.
“For the careful reader of my text it is clear that I in no way wanted to make mine the negative words pronounced by the medieval emperor and their polemical content does not reflect my personal conviction,” he said. He added: “My intention was very different. I wanted to explain that religion and violence do not go together but religion and reason do.”
The Pope said he hoped the furore would eventually help encourage “positive and even self-critical dialogue, both among religions as well as between modern reason and the Christian faith.”
He expressed his “profound respect for the great religions, particularly for Muslims, who worship the one God and with whom we are committed to defending and promoting together social justice, moral values, peace and freedom for all humanity.”
In a sign of increased concern about the Pope’s safety because of the sometimes violent response to his speech — which has included seven Christian churches being attacked in the West Bank — security was tighter at the Vatican on Wednesday. But, as is customary, the Pope still was driven among the crowd standing on the back of an open jeep as it passed among tens of thousands of people in the square.
Western leaders, including President George W. Bush, as well as Church leaders and some Muslims, have been struggling to calm the crisis.
A Vatican source said the Pope’s secretary of state would invite ambassadors from Islamic countries accredited to the Holy See to a meeting this week or early next week.
Asked if the purpose of the meeting was to explain the Pope’s remarks, the source said: “There is not much more to explain now that the Pope has spoken about it twice. This is a gesture of friendship.”
One of the few signs that the crisis may have peaked came from Iran’s hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on a visit to the United Nations in New York.
“I think that he actually takes back his statement and there is no problem,” Ahmadinejad told NBC television. “People in important positions should be careful about what they say. What he said may give an excuse to another group to start a war.”
Ali Kizilkaya, head of Germany’s Islam Council, said the German-born Pope should remember he “is no longer Professor Ratzinger addressing academics. He is the Pope and the whole world is listening.”