VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI "sincerely regrets" offending Muslims with his reference to an obscure medieval text that characterizes some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman," the Vatican said Saturday.
But the statement stopped short of the apology demanded by Islamic leaders around the globe, and anger among Muslims remained intense. Palestinians attacked five churches in the West Bank and Gaza over the pope's remarks Tuesday in a speech to university professors in his native Germany.
In a broader talk rejecting any religious motivation for violence, Benedict cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
The pontiff didn't endorse that description, but he didn't question it, and his words set off a firestorm of protests across the Muslim world.
The new Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the pope's position on Islam is unmistakably in line with Vatican teaching that says the church "esteems" Muslims.
Benedict "thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions," Bertone said in a statement.
He noted that earlier during his German trip, Benedict warned "secularized Western culture" against holding contempt for any religion or believers.
Bertone said the pontiff sought in his university speech to condemn all religious motivation for violence, "from whatever side it may come." But the pope's words only seemed to fan rage.
Bertone's statement, released Saturday by the Vatican press office, failed to satisfy critics, although British Muslim leaders said it was a welcome step.
Mohammed Bishr, a senior Muslim Brotherhood member in Egypt, said the statement "was not an apology" but a "pretext that the pope was quoting somebody else as saying so and so."
"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," Bishr said.
There was no indication whether the pope would do so. His first public appearance since his return from Germany was set for Sunday, when Benedict planned to greet the faithful at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence in the Alban Hills near Rome.
Morocco recalled its ambassador to the Vatican on Saturday to protest the pope's "offensive" remarks, and Afghanistan's parliament and Foreign Ministry demanded the pope apologize.
Turkey cast some doubt on whether Benedict could proceed with a planned visit in November in what would be the pontiff's first trip to a Muslim nation.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted the pope apologize to the Muslim world, saying he had spoken "not like a man of religion but like a usual politician."
Asked if Muslim anger would affect the pope's trip to Istanbul, where he hopes to meet with Orthodox leaders headquartered there, Erdogan replied, "I wouldn't know."
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians, issued a statement saying he was "deeply" saddened by the tensions sparked by the pope's comments.
"We have to show the determination and care not to hurt one another and avoid situations where we may hurt each others' beliefs," the Istanbul-based Patriarchate said.
In West Bank attacks on four churches, Palestinians used guns, firebombs and lighter fluid, leaving church doors charred and walls scorched by flames and pocked with bullet holes. Nobody was reported injured. Two Catholic churches, an Anglican one and a Greek Orthodox one were hit. A Greek Orthodox church was also attacked in Gaza City.
A group calling itself "Lions of Monotheism" told The Associated Press by phone that the attacks were a protest of the pope's remarks on Islam.
During his speech, Benedict stressed that he was quoting words of a Byzantine emperor and did not comment directly on the "evil and inhuman" assessment. On Saturday, Bertone said that "the Holy Father did not mean, nor does he mean, to make that opinion his own in any way."
Benedict quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and an educated Persian 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."'
The grand sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sunni Arab world's most powerful institution, condemned the pope's remarks as "reflecting ignorance."
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose Southeast Asian nation has a large Muslim population, demanded that Benedict retract his remarks and not "take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created."
In a first reaction from a top Christian leader, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church criticized the pope. "Any remarks which offend Islam and Muslims are against the teachings of Christ," Coptic Pope Shenouda III was quoted as telling the pro-government newspaper Al-Ahram.
The Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and Lebanon's top Sunni Muslim religious authority also denounced the pope's comments.
British Muslims sought to calm the situation, praising the Vatican statement on behalf of the pope.
"We welcome his apology and we hope now we can work together and build bridges. At the same time we would condemn all forms of violent demonstration," Muhammad Umar, chairman of Britain's Ramadhan Foundation, a youth organization, told Sky News.
But Muhammad Abdul Bari, general-secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the pontiff needed to repudiate the emperor's views he quoted to restore relations between Muslims and the Roman Catholic Church.
In India, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, who is president of the Indian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the Christian community in that country must face Muslim protests over the pope's speech "with Christian courage and prayer because truth needs no other defense," according to AsiaNews, a Vatican-affiliated news agency.