ROME, Italy, Sept. 15, 2006— -- Pope Benedict delivered a speech at Regensburg University earlier this week, where he once taught theology. His speech focused mainly on Christianity and what he called the tendency to "exclude the question of God" from reason. Islam was a small part of his speech, but its mention created an enormous controversy.
The pope quoted from a book that recounted the words of a 14th century Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaeologus. The book quoted a conversation between the emperor and an "educated Persian." The topic was Christianity and Islam.
There was relatively little reaction right away. But by Thursday it seemed the whole Muslim world had been stirred.
On Thursday evening the Vatican found itself scrambling to issue a statement as it tried to defuse the situation: "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," said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, speaking for the Vatican. He insisted that the pope respects Islam.
But now many in the Muslim world have called for the pope to withdraw the remarks and issue an apology.
The Muslim Brotherhood has called on Islamic countries to break relations with the Vatican if the pope does not make an apology. According to The Associated Press, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim body, said quotations used by the pope represented a "character assassination of the Prophet Mohammed" and a "smear campaign." Similarly, the Pakistani government passed a resolution condemning the pope's words, saying, according to the AP, "This house demands the pope retract his remarks in the interest of harmony among different religions."
Particularly worrying for the Vatican and the pope is the reaction in predominately Muslim Turkey. The pope is scheduled to visit Turkey at the end of November.
A top cleric in Turkey, Ali Bardakoglu, told NTV that the pope's remarks were "saddening and unfortunate." Bardakoglu said it would be even worse "if the pope was reflecting the spite, hatred and enmity" that Bardakoglu believes some in the Christian world direct toward Islam.
The danger of this spinning out of control is apparent, and real. And concerns have been raised that the pope might have to delay or even cancel the Turkey trip, a trip in part about reconciliation, ironically, between the Catholic Church and Orthodox Christians in Turkey.
The pope said, "The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war." Continuing, the pope said, "I quote, 'Show me just what Mohammed 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."
The pope characterized the emperor's words as "surprisingly brusque." He also recounted how the emperor explained that spreading faith through violence is unreasonable, since violence is incompatible with God. A few sentences later, the pope was back to analyzing Christian theology.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi later told reporters that the pope did not intend to give "an interpretation of Islam as violent."
The speech and the quotes were carried in major papers around the world. Some raised the question that, given existing interfaith tensions, the pope's remarks might spark anger.
The pope makes his next public appearance on Sunday. And the pope, as is tradition, is expected to deliver an address, usually a message for Christians around the world. But this Sunday there will no doubt be many Muslims listening, to see if the pope has a message for them.