Muslim Leaders Unmoved by Vatican Explanation for Papal Comments

Leaders across the Muslim world demanded Pope Benedict XVI apologize for his remarks on Islam and jihad, unmoved by the Vatican's assurances that he meant only to emphasize the incompatibility between faith and war.

The torrent of rage unleashed by Benedict's comments in a speech in Germany stirred fears of violent anti-Western protests like those that followed the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Two churches in the West Bank were hit by firebombs Saturday, and a group claiming responsibility said it was protesting Benedict's words.

But Turkish government officials said Saturday they would not ask Benedict to cancel a planned visit in November -- in what would be his first papal trip to a Muslim country.

Benedict on Tuesday 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.

Vatican officials insisted the pope did not intend to be offensive and expressed regret over any hurt caused to Muslims. But Muslim leaders said outreach efforts by papal emissaries were not enough.

Turkey's ruling party likened the pope to Hitler and Mussolini and accused him of reviving the mentality of the Crusades.

Malaysia's prime minister said Benedict should apologize, echoing demands by the Pakistani parliament, Lebanon's top Shiite cleric and even Turkey's staunchly pro-secular opposition party.

"The pope must not take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted as saying Saturday by the state-run Bernama news agency.

Abdullah, who is chairman of the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, warned Benedict's comments would hinder the fostering of good relations between Islam and Christianity.

"It is unfortunate that such an eminent figure like the pope has not shown leadership in promoting good relations between religions," Abdullah was quoted as saying at the summit of the Nonaligned Movement in Havana.

A Christian leader -- the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church -- said Benedict's comments on Islam went "against the teachings of Christ."

Coptic Pope Shenouda III told Egypt's pro-government Al-Ahram newspaper that he didn't hear the pope's exact words but that "any remarks which offend Islam and Muslims are against the teachings of Christ."

"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 Saturday as saying.

The last outpouring of Islamic anger at the West came in February over the prophet cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper. The drawings sparked protests -- some of them deadly -- in almost every Muslim nation in the world.'

In the West Bank, firebombs left black scorch marks on the walls and windows of a Greek Orthodox and an Anglican church in the city of Nablus. In a phone call to The Associated Press, a group calling itself the "Lions of Monotheism" claimed responsibility.

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."

A day earlier, about 2,000 Palestinians angrily protested in Gaza City. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of the Islamic militant group Hamas, said the pope had offended Muslims everywhere.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Saturday the pope made "a big mistake" and "contradicted his own leadership of a divine religion."

On Friday, Pakistan's parliament adopted a resolution condemning Benedict for making what it called "derogatory" comments about Islam, and seeking an apology. Hours later, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry summoned the Vatican's ambassador to express regret over the pope's remarks.

But the strongest denunciations came from Turkey -- a moderate democracy seeking European Union membership.

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.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has tried to defuse anger, saying the pope did not intend to offend Muslim sensibilities and insisting Benedict respects Islam. In Pakistan, the Vatican envoy voiced regret at "the hurt caused to Muslims."

But Muslim leaders were unappeased.

"We do not accept the apology through Vatican channels ... and ask him (Benedict) to offer a personal apology -- not through his officials," Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's most senior Shiite cleric, told worshippers in Beirut.

The pope had quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 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," Benedict 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 pope did not explicitly agree with nor repudiate the comment.

The Rev. Robert Taft, a specialist in Islamic affairs at Rome's Pontifical Oriental Institute, said it was unlikely Benedict miscalculated how some Muslims would receive his speech.

"The message he is sending is very, very clear," Taft said. "Violence in the name of faith is never acceptable in any religion and that (the pope) considers it his duty to challenge Islam and anyone else on this."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the German-born pope, saying his message had been misunderstood. "It is an invitation to dialogue between religions and the pope has explicitly urged this dialogue, which I also endorse and see as urgently necessary," she said Friday.