Pope's Comments Still Fuel Anger in Egypt

The controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's remarks is, clearly, not going away; and his apology did not seem to help much either. Responding to the Egyptian-born and Qatari-based Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi's call for a "Day of Anger," thousands of protesters turned out at the Al-Azhar mosque in the heart of Cairo Friday.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one the most powerful Islamic organizations in the Arab world, organized the protest. Scores of young Muslims wore headbands that read, "We are Islam's soldiers." Banners proclaiming, "Students of the Muslim Brotherhood denounce the Pope's remarks," hung neatly in the Mosque courtyard.

The imam at Al-Azhar reminded the believers that Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, begins this week, and that they should repent and purify their hearts and souls. He concluded his sermon by saying, "We will not accept the Pope's apology because it is not enough. He must erase the quote that linked Islam with violence so that future generations will not use it."

As soon as the sermon ended, the prayer hall was instantly transformed into a political rally. The crowd roared with a deafening chant: "With our blood, with our soul, we sacrifice for Islam."

The first speaker, Mustafa Bakri, a nationalist journalist and parliamentarian, asserted that the West is waging a "crusade" against Islam.

"The highest authority in the Catholic Church is supplying religious justification for Bush's war," shouted Bakri, the only non-Islamist speaker present. "The other is the killer. The other is the aggressor. We [Muslims] must unite. We must do away with compromise and reconciliation with the other."

Next, Mohammed al-Beltagui, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, dressed in a suit and tie, reminded the crowd that the pontiff's remarks were not an innocent slip of tongue.

"We must stand up and support resistance movements in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq," he said. "If we unify our ranks, the Ummah [global Muslim community] would succeed in repelling the aggressors who are robbing its treasures. We will not accept the Pope's apology.

"He must concede that he had blundered," al-Beltagui reiterated.

However, the crowd was brought to tears when another Muslim Brotherhood speaker and historian, Sheikh Gamal Abdul-Hadi, took the stage. A short man in his late 60s, bearded and dressed in traditional Islamic attire, Sheikh Abdul-Hadi cried, "Where is the Ummah? Where are Muslim leaders, Muslim clerics? They [Muslim leaders] must sever diplomatic relations with the Vatican, with the Americans, and with the Germans. They must call for Jihad to fight. What are you waiting for?"

I noticed several men dressed in white, and hooded (lest they be identified by the local authorities), who all had the same statement written across their chests: "We are prepared to be martyred for Islam."

Well-known for its organizational skills, the Muslim Brotherhood left nothing to chance at the rally. They kept a tight balance between students who chanted anti-Pope slogans and speakers who incited the crowd. Everyone acted in unison.

The Brotherhood also mobilized an impressive contingent of women, as they have recently nourished a base of sisterhood to show their evolution from a male-dominated patriarchal structure into a politically and socially inclusive organization. Veiled and vocal, the women added color and texture to the protests.

A speaker representing the Islamic International Federation of NGOs called on Turkey to rescind the Pope's visit to the country. And Omar Azzam, a leader of a banned Islamic party, Labor, said, "We must thank the Pope for what he said because he awakened the Ummah."

With those few exceptions, no other political parties participated in the Brotherhood's rally.

Afterward, at a coffee shop in Cairo, I met with a leading radical Islamist, Kamal al-Said Habib, who had attended the protests.

"Are you exploiting the Pope's remarks to garner political gains at home," I pressed.

"So what," he retorted, sipping a glass of Egyptian tea. "The pontiff had given us an opportunity to mobilize the Ummah."

"But your inflammatory rhetoric harms inter-faith relations between Muslims and Christians in the long term," I said.

"Well, the Pope's remarks have already done irreparable damage," he said. "We [Islamists] have a responsibility to our audience which expects us to defend the faith. We cannot think rationally while our prophet and religion are being smeared. The Pope's anti-Muslim statement had left us with no choice but to protest."

Fearing that I might have drawn the wrong conclusions, Kamal added, "No, I hope you do not misunderstand me. We are not inciting people. Ask anyone here in old Cairo and they will tell you that they are hurt."

Quickly, Kamal grabbed two Egyptians, who happened to be walking by, and asked them.

Walid and Abdul Nasser said they felt offended and angry by the Pope's remarks about Mohammed.

"You see," Kamal said with a triumphant smile, even though I could see he didn't really understand what I was getting at.

"Well, where do we go from here," I asked Kamal and Hazem Salem, a human rights advocate in his 30s who accompanied me to Al-Azhar mosque.

"If the Pope makes an unambiguous apology, if he cancels the hurtful quotation, that would resonate positively with Muslims" Kamal volunteered.

"Some broken things can never be repaired," retorted Hazem, a progressive leftist in the opposite camp of Kamal. "The problem is that Muslims are taking a look at Pope Benedict XVI's past and do not like what they see.

"The crisis has widened the cleavage that exists between the world of Islam and the Christian West," Hazem said sadly.

"Exacerbating the crisis is that Arabic Islam and non-Arabic Islam in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia outbid one another to show that they are the real defenders of religion," Hazem said as Kamal nodded. "The result is that the reverberation of the Pope's words echo near and far."

Fawaz A. Gerges, an ABC News consultant, is a Carnegie scholar and visiting professor at the American University in Cairo and author of "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy."