Pope Benedict XVI remained out of sight yesterday as the furore over his comments on Islam and jihad worsened, with Muslim leaders demanding a personal apology and churches being attacked in the Palestinian territories.
His response came via Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the new Vatican secretary of state, who said the Pope was "extremely upset" at the offence he had caused. The pontiff "esteems Muslims", insisted Cardinal Bertone, because they "adore the only God".
Pope Benedict was sitting out the storm at his summer residencenear Rome. He is expected to meet crowds there today, his first public appearance since returning from the tour of Germany on which the controversy started.
The Pope was speaking on Tuesday at the University of Regensburg. He quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying the Prophet Mohamed had only brought "evil and inhuman" things to the world, and had commanded followers to spread their faith by the sword.
Some Muslims seized on this equation of Islam and violence as a papal attempt to revive the Crusades. Other, calmer Islamic voices saw it as a bit rich, coming from the leader of the church that spilt blood in the name of Christ. The Pope also quoted the emperor as saying: "God is not pleased by blood." But his words led to protests by governments, including those of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, which he is supposed to visit in November.
Having been Pope for 17 months, Benedict has yet to make clear his strategy towards Islam, although he agrees it is one of the challenges of the age.
In 2001 his predecessor John Paul II became the first pope to step into a mosque, during a trip to Syria. Also that year, in a papal prayer he read in Rome, John Paul apologised for "the violence used by some Christians in the service of truth". The Vatican said this meant the Crusades, as well as the Inquisition and complicity with persecution of Jews.
In 1996, long before he became Pope Benedict XVI, the then Cardinal Ratzinger said Islam had difficulty adapting to modern life. Last year he accused Muslim leaders in his home nation of Germany of allowing the youngsters in their community to fall into "the darkness of a new barbarism".
While some Vatican observers believe the Regensburg speech may have been a conscious attempt to challenge Islam, the Vatican is stressing that it was not specific to any faith - rather "a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence".
Benedict did appear to be attempting new relations with Muslim leaders before this controversy. The Turkish visit was being seen as an attempt to engage afresh with a country he once said should not be allowed to join the EU because its predominantly Islamic culture clashed with the Christian roots of Europe.
Yesterday, Cardinal Bertone stressed that during the trip to Germany, Pope Benedict had also warned secular Western culture to avoid being scornful towards God.
He had spoken out against Western cynicism that "considers the mockery of the sacred a right to freedom" (a reference, in part, to the row over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed), said Cardinal Bertone. "In reiterating his respect and his esteem for those who profess Islam he hopes that they are aided in understanding the right sense of his words, so that this not easy moment may be quickly overcome."
Here, the Muslim Council of Britain said the Pope had "made a good first step" in "recognising the hurt he caused".
FOR AND AGAINST
"This was a decisive rejection of any use of violence in the name of religion"
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
"He has committed a grave error against us that will only be removed through a personal apology"
Mohammed Habib, Muslim Brotherhood of EgyptReuse content