Published September 16, 2006
CAIRO, Egypt – The head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church on Saturday became the first top Christian leader to join the Muslim world in denouncing comments made by Pope Benedict XVI's about Islam and jihad, as religious and political leaders warned of impending sectarian violence despite the Vatican's insistence that the Roman Catholic leader's words were misinterpreted and he didn't intend to be offensive.
Coptic Pope Shenouda III said in published remarks that he didn't hear Benedict's exact words but that "any remarks which offend Islam and Muslims are against the teachings of Christ."
Relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East already were strained, and political and religious leaders warned that the pope's comments could spark a new wave of sectarian unrest. Anti-Western protests like those that followed last year's publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad have popped up over the past two days around the Middle East, Turkey and Asia.
Violence erupted in some parts of the Middle East Saturday as Palestinians wielding guns, firebombs and lighter fluid attacked four churches in the West Bank town of Nablus, while gunmen opened fire at a fifth in Gaza.
No injuries were reported in any of the attacks, which left church doors charred and outer walls pocked by bulletholes and scorched by firebombs. Churches of various denominations were targeted.
Clergy played down the attacks as isolated incidents, but said they'd worry if more Christian sites are targeted. "It is easy to worry," said Father Yousef Saada, a Roman Catholic priest in Nablus. "The atmosphere is charged already, and the wise should not accept such acts."
Benedict on Tuesday in Germany cited an obscure Medieval text that characterizes some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman" — comments some experts took as a signal that the Vatican was staking a more demanding stance for its dealings with the Muslim world.
The Vatican on Saturday said the pope "sincerely regrets" that Muslims have been offended by some of his comments. But a statement by Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, stopped short of any apology for what the pope said.
"In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes that they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words, so that, quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment ... collaboration may intensify" to promote social justice, moral welfare, peace and freedom for all mankind, the cardinal said.
A senior Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member said the Vatican's comments were not enough to quell the anger over his words.
"What was issued by the Vatican was considered as an attempt to give an excuse for what the pope has been quoted saying, and what we demand is a sincere acknowledgment that there was a mistake, not allegations that we misunderstood the pope," said Brotherhood member Mohammed Bishr.
"We need the pope to admit the big mistake he has committed and then agree on apologizing, because we will not accept others to apologize on his behalf," he said.
Other Muslim leaders said outreach efforts by papal emissaries were not enough and they also demanded the pope personally apologize. Morocco recalled its ambassador to the Holy See, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry announced Saturday, and Turkey's ruling party likened the pope to Hitler and Mussolini and accused him of reviving the mentality of the Crusades.
The grand sheik of Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sunni Arab world's most powerful institution, on Saturday condemned the pope's remarks as "reflecting ignorance."
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi made the comment in a brief interview with the pro-government Akhbar al-Youm newspaper, rather than issuing an official statement.
Criticism from the Arab world continued after the Vatican expressed regret over the offense caused by his comments.
Egypt, Sudan and Kuwait all sought clarification on the remarks from the Vatican envoy in their capitals. The Arab League likewise said the comments required explanation.
Kuwait's deputy prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheik Mohammed Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, in a speech at the nonaligned summit in Havana,urged the Vatican to show respect for Islam, Kuwait's official news agency reported.
"We hope that Pope Benedict XVI will follow the steps of Pope John Paul II, who carried out a series of constructive steps to conduct an interfaith dialogue," Al Sabah said.
Some 100 Muslims demonstrated against the pope at Al-Azhar in Cairo after prayers Friday, with some protesters calling Christian "infidels."
Christians, mostly Coptic, make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 73 million people and generally live in peace with the Muslim majority, but violence flares occasionally, particularly in small southern communities. Many Copts have complained of discrimination.
The Coptic church also has been at odds with the Roman Catholic church since as early as the 5th century over the rising influence of the Catholic papacy. The split was sealed in 1054 with an exchange of anathemas — essentially spiritual repudiations — between the Vatican and the patriarch of Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, and still the spiritual center of Orthodoxy. The Coptic Pope Shenouda refused to meet with the late Pope John Paul II when he last visited Egypt.
"Christianity and Christ's teachings instruct us not to hurt others, either in their convictions or their ideas, or any of their symbols — religious symbols," Shenouda was quoted as saying in the pro-government Al-Ahram newspaper.
In Lebanon, a county where roughly 40 percent of the population is Christian, the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and the country's top Sunni Muslim religious authority denounced Benedict's comments.
Hezbollah also warned that his comments could create a global religious schism and called on the Vatican to review the pope's "declared attitude which can lead to world divisions and from which the enemies of humanity — the neo-conservatives led by (U.S. President George W.) Bush and the neo-racists and Nazis, the Zionists who attack civilians and the land — can benefit."
Iraq's biggest political parties on Saturday also condemned Benedict's comments, with the main Sunni party warning that the pope "should not be lured into returning to the Crusades."
"The world today needs all religious authorities to cooperate to curb the phenomenon of violence," the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party said in a statement. "We urge all Christian religious authorities in both the Arab and Western world not to be involved in the confrontation against the Islamic world as it could lead to Muslim-Christian violence, God forbid."
Comparisons to the Crusades also were made in other parts of the Muslim world with perhaps the harshest criticism coming from Turkey, where the pope is scheduled to visit in November. Turkish government officials said Saturday they would not ask Benedict to cancel the visit — in what would be his first papal trip to a Muslim country.
Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party, said Benedict's remarks were either "the result of pitiful ignorance" about Islam and its prophet or, worse, a deliberate distortion.
"He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages," Kapusuz told Turkish state media. "It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades."
"He is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini," he added.