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Pope's Islam comments cause concern; apology welcomed

By Matthew Davies


[Episcopal News Service]  An apology from Pope Benedict XVI for quoting, during a September 12 lecture in Regensburg, Germany, the words of a 14th century Christian emperor who spoke of Islam as having "evil and inhuman" aspects, has been welcomed by church leaders, but many Muslims have insisted that the papal apology did not go far enough.

The comments triggered violent protests and caused Palestinian Christian churches in the West Bank and Gaza to come under attack.

"One has to judge his views on his track record generally when talking about interfaith dialogue and his very generous appreciation of the Muslim contribution in the past," the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said of the Pope on September 18 during a BBC interview. "It is a great pity if one phrase, which is a quotation, is taken as representing his own view. I think he has taken very significant steps to clear the air."

The Rt. Rev Christopher Epting, deputy to the Presiding Bishop for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, said: "I'm not sure how the controversial portion of his speech advanced his overall argument about faith and reason, and about religiously motivated violence being not only unfaithful, but unreasonable. However, I am glad the Holy Father clarified the fact that the 14th century citation did not reflect his own views."

Benedict issued the apology on September 17 for the furor his comments had caused. "I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims," he said. "These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."

He referred to a September 16 statement issued by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, who spoke of the Pope's "respect and esteem" for followers of Islam and said that he remained firmly committed to interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

"I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect," Benedict said.

Meanwhile, protestors continued to burn effigies of the Pope in Basra, Iraq, while many Muslims insisted that the apology did not go far enough.

Shops, businesses and most schools were reported closed on September 18 in parts of Indian-administered Kashmir, where Muslims are a majority, in response to a strike call by separatists to protest Benedict's comments, Ecumenical News International reported.

In the West Bank town of Tul Karm on September 17, arsonists set fire to a 170-year-old church just before dawn, causing significant damage, local Christian officials said. On the same day, in the village of Tubas, another church was attacked with firebombs and partially burned. 
Muslim protesters hurled firebombs and opened fire at five churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on September 16.

Speaking on BBC radio, Williams said that elements in all religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, could be used to promote violence.

"These religious faiths, because they are held by human beings who are very fallible, can be distorted in these ways and we all need to recognize that," he said. "There is a sense of frustration among the most moderate and educated Muslims that they don't really get a fair hearing. It goes quite deep."