Muslim world divided over Pope's apology
While some welcome gesture, others demand act of contrition
Luke Harding in Berlin and Hugh Muir | September 18, 2006
Pope Benedict's admission that he was "deeply sorry" for offending the sensitivities of Muslims does not necessarily mean that the worst crisis of his papacy is over yet. Speaking in Rome yesterday, the Pope said that the views of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus that he quoted last week - describing Islam as "evil and inhuman" - were not his own.
In Britain, some senior Muslims welcomed the Pope's apologies but suggested that he would have to make a further apology to stop the row escalating.
Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: "He needs to convince that this is a genuine apology because many people are aware of the sort of things he has been saying for a long time. Threats are not the way forward but some of the things he has said have been music to the ears of racists."
The Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the Pope's explanation. A spokesman said: "We very much welcome the Pope's statement today in which he made it clear that his own views do not in any way accord with those of the 14th century emperor. This is a very important clarification that we had been seeking. Had this caveat been included in the Pope's original speech it may have prevented this controversy in the first place."
Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, called the apology a "welcome gesture" but said the Pope must address the core of what he had said. "He said Christianity believes in reason, is more logical and doesn't believe in violence. But reason is also the cornerstone of Islamic belief. He should make it clear that Islam does not preach violence."
In Germany, representatives of the country's 3.2 million Muslims, most of them Turks,were satisfied with the Pope's remarks. There was now no reason why he should not visit Turkey in late November as planned, they added. Turkish religious leaders also struck a conciliatory tone yesterday.
In Egypt, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of Cairo's Al-Azhar, the Sunni Arab world's most powerful institution, dismissed the comments as inadequate.
"He should apologise because he insulted the beliefs of Islam. He must apologise in a frank way and say he made a mistake," Mr Ashour told al-Arabiya TV.
And in a sign of how opinion is split, there appeared to be mixed messages from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
The Associated Press quoted the group's leader as saying the Islamic political group's relations with Christians should remain "good, civilised and cooperative".
"While anger over the Pope's remarks was necessary, it shouldn't last for long because while he is the head of the Catholic church in the world, many Europeans are not following it. So what he said won't influence them," said Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But there were other reports that after initially saying the Pope's statement was "sufficient", the group felt it did "not rise to the level of a clear apology" and called for an act of contrition that would "decisively end any confusion".
In Iran, anger against the Pope was growing. As well as student protests, the Vatican's ambassador to Iran, Archbishop Angelo Mottola, was summoned "to receive Iran's strong protest against the Pope's remarks on Islam", the official Irna news agency said.
One Iranian cleric said the Pope's apology could only be accepted if the pontiff fell to his feet. Numerous other religious seminaries in Iran announced they were going on strike.
Vatican advisers will almost certainly be hoping that once the pontiff's conciliatory message filters down to the Muslim street the protests will die off.
But radical Islamist groups - or authoritarian regimes trying to deal with restive Islamist forces in their own societies - might also exploit religious misunderstanding for their own purposes.
Yesterday, two armed Iraqi groups posted threats to the Vatican and the Catholic Church on the internet.
Many still fear a repeat of the Danish cartoon row, which saw protests and violence across the Muslim world on a far greater, and more diffuse, scale than at present, after a rightwing Danish newspaper, the Jutland Post, published a series of cartoons a year ago mocking the Prophet Muhammad as a self-proclaimed exercise in free speech. It was only when, five months later, a group of incensed ultra-conservative Danish imams travelled to the Middle East with the cartoons, that the affair exploded into a cultural row.
The Pope's apology also fails to address, or acknowledge, another root problem: that sensitivities are already inflamed, and there is a widespread perception across the Muslim world that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were carried out by what many Muslims see as little more than a Christian coalition - a new Crusade.
The Vatican says it is worried about the turn events are taking. The Vatican's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said he hoped the death of the Italian nun shot dead while working in Somalia was "an isolated event". "We are worried about the consequences of this wave of hatred and hope it doesn't have grave consequences for the church around the world," he told Ansa news agency.
Conservative politicians in Europe, meanwhile, have made it clear whose side they are on.
Over the weekend, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the Pope had been misunderstood. The general secretary of her Christian Democrat party, Ronald Pofalla, went further, declaring: "All those who attack the Pope are not interested in dialogue. They merely want to intimidate and silence the West."
In the Muslim city of Istanbul, once the Christian capital of Constantinople, the Pope arrives on a huge mission: to undo the Great Schism of 1054 and reunite Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. This is not to everyone's liking: reactionaries from Opus Dei, the dark operators of Turkey's security "deep state", and the evil geniuses of Italy's P-2 masonic lodge form an alliance to stop the Vatican. In Istanbul, a journalist is contracted to assassinate the pope.
Such is the plot of the potboiler racing up the bestseller lists in Turkey. Uncannily coinciding with the Vatican-Islam tension and ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's November visit to Turkey, the Turkish writer Yücel Kaya published his thriller "Attack on the Pope" in May. The pope and his coterie will require a diplomacy lacking in the Regensburg homily to negotiate this trip.