VATICAN CITY – With furor spreading throughout the Islamic world, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep regret Saturday that a speech he gave at a German university last week had offended Muslims.
In a statement released by his new secretary of state, Benedict reiterated his “respect and esteem for those who profess Islam,” adding that he hoped they will be “helped to understand the correct meaning of his words.”
It did not seem likely that the pope’s expression of regret would satisfy the clamors from many corners of the world that he apologize. He distanced himself from the language that Muslims found objectionable, but did not retract the words nor ask for forgiveness.
The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest and most influential Islamic organizations in the Middle East, issued an initial response that the pope’s overture was insufficient.
Hostile reaction to the pope’s speech, a dense lecture in which he cited a medieval Byzantine emperor who viewed Islam as “evil and inhuman,” has plunged Benedict’s 17-month-old papacy into its most difficult diplomatic crisis yet.
From Muslim communities in Europe, to Egypt, Pakistan and points in between, a chorus of anger has assailed the pope. His effigy was burned in India, his name has been invoked in comparison to Hitler and Mussolini.
Morocco on Saturday became the first Islamic country to recall its ambassador to the Holy See. In Cairo, Egypt, Coptic Christian leaders joined their Muslim counterparts in condemning the pope.
Earlier Saturday, gunmen firebombed four Christian churches in the West Bank city of Nablus and opened fire on a fifth in the Gaza Strip. Iraqi and Somali militants threatened to kill the pope or attack Rome.
The prime minister of Turkey, where the pope is scheduled to travel in November, demanded a retraction of “ugly and unfortunate” comments. “The pope spoke like a politician rather than as a man of religion,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
The trip, Benedict’s first to a Muslim country, may be in jeopardy, although Vatican officials were hoping Saturday’s statement might clear the air.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state who issued the communique, said the pope in no way endorsed the passage he quoted from Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and meant it only as a means to illustrate the rejection of religious motivation for violence.
“The holy father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions,” Bertone said.
“He hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words” with the goal of “quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment,” he added.
The speech was delivered at the University of Regensburg, where the then-Joseph Ratzinger taught theology in the 1970s. Benedict returned Tuesday during a six-day tour of his native Bavaria.
It was meant to be one of the most important documents of his papacy. Benedict labored long hours drafting the Regensburg speech over his summer holidays. It lays out the central tenets of his papacy, including the importance of the partnership of reason and faith in Western Christianity.
His brief references to Islam seemed to portray it as a historically violent faith reliant on forced conversions and “jihad,” which he translated as holy war. Christianity’s own bloodstained past was not mentioned.
Vatican experts were divided over whether Benedict miscalculated the depth of anger his words would inspire, or whether he might not care. As a consummate theologian, the role he played for the last quarter-century, he is not averse to debate and controversy, and he clearly wanted to stake out his positions in stark and dramatic terms.
“Pushing these buttons of protest will not help the future of religious dialogue, neither for Muslims nor for us,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian. “The pope does not live on an island, but in Rome, and it’s hard to see that this controversy will simply be disregarded.”