Analysis: Pope's remarks are consistent
By VICTOR L. SIMPSON, Associated Press Writer
Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on Islam and holy war that have angered much of the Muslim world are in line with his efforts to spare religion from violence and extremism.
During his 17-month papacy, Benedict has lectured Muslims on the need to teach their young to shun violence, suggested that violent as well as peaceful strains are part of Islam and pressed for religious freedom — part of efforts to extend rights to Christians in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.
While Benedict's comments on Islam and holy war may not have been "politically correct," said former Vatican diplomat John-Peter Pham, "today much of our dialogue is fruitless because we feel constrained from saying what we really think."
The source of the Islamic anger was a speech last week in which the pontiff cited a Medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
While the pope later said he was "deeply sorry" over the reactions to his remarks and that they did not reflect his own opinions, top churchmen rushed to his defense.
"The violent reactions in many parts of the Islamic world justified one of Pope Benedict's main fears," said Australian Cardinal George Pell.
"They showed the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence," Pell said Monday.
In the Vatican's first response to the Muslim criticism, papal spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was clear that Benedict sought to "cultivate an attitude of respect toward other religions and cultures, including of course Islam."
But he also said it was important to the pope that there be a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation of violence."
Some Vatican analysts say Benedict is taking a harder line toward Islam then his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose efforts for closer relations included a visit to a mosque in Syria — the first by a pope to a Muslim house of worship.
They point to Benedict's decision in March to merge the Vatican's office for dialogue with Muslims with its culture office, and to send the English prelate who headed it, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, — considered a top Islamic expert — to Egypt as papal envoy.
Commenting on the move, the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit authority on the Vatican, called Fitzgerald, "the smartest guy in the Vatican on relations with Muslims. You don't exile someone like that, you listen to them."
"If the Vatican says something dumb about Muslims, people will die in parts of Africa and churches will be burned in Indonesia, let alone what happens in the Middle East," Reese said in April.
Benedict, aides said, wrote the speech himself that he delivered last week to an audience of professors at the University of Regensburg, where he previously taught theology.
It is not known whether any aide was alarmed at the possibility for trouble, although journalists who received advance copies of the text asked the Vatican spokesman for explanations hours before Benedict delivered the address. When reading the lines about Islam, Benedict did add "I quote" twice.
It is not unusual for popes to make last-minute changes or to drop material for reasons that are often never explained.
For example, when Benedict visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in May, then spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters that the word "Shoah" — Hebrew for the Holocaust — would appear in the final version the pope delivered. Its omission would certainly have generated protests.
Rome bureau chief Victor Simpson has covered the Vatican for more than 25 years.