Muslim world protests at Pope's 'derogatory' Mohamed comments

Pope Benedict XVI has ignited a firestorm of protest from Muslims around the world in reaction to his citation of negative remarks about the Prophet Mohamed and the purported Muslim tendency to convert infidels by force. Many of the world's senior Islamic figures joined in the protest, including clerics and politicians from Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

The most severe criticism came from Pakistan, where the parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the Pope for making what it called "derogatory" comments about Islam and seeking an apology from him.

The rage was sparked by a few brief lines buried deep within a long and closely reasoned address given by the German Pope to the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he had once been a professor. Benedict's lecture was devoted to the question of the "reasonableness" of Christian faith in an age when most people believe that rationality means science and implicitly excludes religious belief.

Benedict insisted that rationality was the Greek contribution to Christianity and was intrinsic to it. As an illustration he quoted what "the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus" told an educated Persian about reasonableness and religion.

The 14th-century emperor said, as Benedict put it, that "spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul". Continuing his quote, the Pope said: "'God is not pleased by blood... Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence or threats.'"

If Benedict had restricted himself to those words, it is likely his speech would have passed off with few adverse comments. But instead he included the far harsher words the emperor had spoken immediately before: "'Show me just what Mohamed 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.'"

In one dense and scholarly paragraph, the Pope thereby succeeded in combining the ideas that Islam is evil and inhuman, that it converts (or at least converted) by the sword and that doing so was proof of its unreasonableness as a religion and the irrationality of its believers.

The lecture continued for another four-and-a-half pages, but nowhere did the Pope try to distance himself from Manuel's remarks or say the emperor was wrong. On the contrary, the emperor was described as a "Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy" who was "erudite" about both religions.

The Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Ali Bardakoglu, said the remarks "reflect the hatred in [the Pope's] heart. It is a statement full of enmity and grudge". He said he was offended, and called the words "extraordinarily worrying, saddening and unfortunate".

The comments immediately focused attention on the Pope's planned visit to Turkey in November. The Pope has already been criticised in Turkey for his opposition to it joining the European Union, and his advocacy for a Christian element in the EU constitution. Salih Kapusuz, the deputy leader of the ruling party, which has its roots in Islam, said Benedict's remarks were either the result of "pitiful ignorance" about Islam and its Prophet or a deliberate distortion of the truth.

"He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages," he said. "He is a poor thing that has not benefited from the spirit of reform in the Christian world. It looks like an attempt to revive the mentality of the Crusades."

Across the Middle East, senior Islamic figures denounced the remarks. In Beirut, Lebanon's leading Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, demanded the Pope personally apologise for an insult to Islam.

In Syria, the Grand Mufti, the country's top Sunni Muslim religious authority, said he had sent a letter to the Pope explaining that he feared the pontiff's comments on Islam would worsen inter-faith relations.

In Cairo, protesters gathered outside the capital's al-Azhar mosque.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, attempted to defuse the crisis by saying Benedict had been misunderstood.

"It certainly wasn't the intention of the Pope to carry out a deep examination of jihad and Muslim thought on it, much less to offend the sensibility of Muslim believers," he said in a statement. He insisted that the Pope wanted to "cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue towards other religions and cultures, obviously also towards Islam".

The Byzantine emperor he quoted

* The man whose words have provoked the latest torrent of emotion from the Islamic world was a member of the last Byzantine dynasty to rule in Constantinople before being defeated by the Turks.

Manuel II Palaeologus was also the only Byzantine emperor to visit Britain (and France) in an effort to whip up support for his crumbling dynasty. He reigned from 1392 to 1425, and in between wars and sieges managed to compose numerous books on theology and rhetoric.

At the time of his father's death, Manuel was an honorary hostage at the court of the Ottoman sultan, and had been forced to fight in the sultan's campaign to crush the last Roman enclave in Anatolia, at Philadelphia.

Manuel fled to Constantinople in 1392 to claim his crown but, two years later, was under siege by the sultan who had formerly held him captive. It was during the eight-year siege of his capital that Manuel gave a Persian the thoughts on the "evil" and "inhumanity" of Islam which Benedict quoted. Despite this, he had good relations with the victor in the Ottoman civil war, Mehmed I.

In 1453, 28 years after his death, Constantinople finally fell to the Turks.

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