Pope Benedict XVI has used his first public appearance since returning to Italy from Germany to try to defuse the crisis that has overtaken him since he quoted a Byzantine emperor who described Islam as "evil and inhuman".
Speaking to pilgrims from the balcony of his summer residence at Castelgandolfo, south of Rome, at midday yesterday, he said he was "deeply sorry for the reactions to a brief passage considered offensive to the feelings of Muslim believers".
He went on: "These were, in fact, a quotation from a medieval text which does not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this is sufficient to placate the spirits and to clarify the true meaning of my address which in its totality was and is an invitation to a frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect."
But while the Pope was speaking, hundreds of miles south of Rome, in Mogadishu, at least two men shot a 70-year-old Italian nun four times in the back at a school where she worked. The nun, Sister Leonella, died in hospital. A senior Islamic souce in Somalia cited by Reuters said there was "a high level of possibility" that the murder was linked to the speech. A suspect was arrested.
The Pope's spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, described Sister's Leonella's killing as "a horrible espisode ... Let's hope it will be an isolated fact."
But it was not certain if the Pope's words would be enough to defuse a crisis that was beginning to look ominously like the one into which Islam's relations with the West were plunged by the Danish cartoon affair last year.
In Turkey, the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, said the Pope's planned visit to the country in November was still on. "From our point of view, there is no change," he said. But another minister, Mehmet Aydin, pointed out that, in his statement of regret, the Pope seemed to be saying he was sorry for the reaction to his remarks but not for the remarks themselves. "You either have to say this 'I'm sorry' in a proper way, or not say it at all," he said. "Are you sorry for saying such a thing, or because of its consequences?"
The Pope seems to have been oblivious to the possibility that the quotation from the 14th century emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, buried deep inside a learned address to scholars at Germany's University of Regensburg, could have angered pious Muslims. But given the phrase "evil and inhuman" and his failure to distance himself from it, that shows a lack of sensitivity in a figure whose words go around the world in minutes.
And yesterday the surge of violence continued. Two churches in the West Bank were set on fire, following five incidents in the West Bank and Gaza on Saturday, when five churches were firebombed and fired at.
In some quarters, there were signs the Pope's remarks in Castelgandolfo were enough to draw a line under the affair. The second most senior leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said he accepted the clarification.
But, elsewhere, firebrand Islamic preachers continued to milk the crisis for all it was worth. In the holy city of Qom, in Iran, a hardline cleric, Ahmad Khatami, told hundreds of demonstrators that the Pope and President Bush were "united in order to repeat the Crusades".
"If the Pope does not apologise, Muslims' anger will continue until he becomes remorseful," he went on. "He should go to clerics and sit and learn about Islam."
Protests were also reported in India and Turkey.
This crisis was sparked by the Pope's carelessness, while the cartoon affair was a product of mischief-making. They have one thing in common: both started by depicting Islam as violent. The cartoon that caused most offence showed the prophet with a turban as a tank. The Pope's quotation referred to the Prophet's "command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached". Such references to Islam's alleged propensity for violence cause some Islamic leaders and followers to become livid; in fact, they become so angry at the slur they go out and shoot aged nuns in the back. This is a paradox that Benedict's "frank and sincere dialogue" will need to grapple with, if it is to get off the ground. But it will be a brave man who who broaches the subject.
What he said
* " ... 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 told pilgrims at his summer residence of Castelgandolfo. "These, in fact, were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought," the Pope said at his weekly Angelus prayer. "I hope 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 mutual respect."Reuse content