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Pope Reaches Out to Islam: Controversy Over His Remarks Continues


Protests in the Muslim world continue a week after Pope Benedict XVI quoted the words of a 14th century Byzantine emperor critical of the Prophet Muhammad during a lecture at Regensburg University in Germany. Several churches in the Middle East were later firebombed and papal effigies burned. The Pope has apologized for his remarks, but Muslim politicians from Turkey to Malaysia have called his apology insufficient.

Pope Benedict XVI quoted – without qualification – the words of Emperor Manuel II Paleologos, “Show me what Muhammad 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 that he preached.” The Pope included this quotation in his lecture to show the relationship between religion and violence. Europeans regard the Pope’s remarks as a matter of freedom of expression within the context of an academic lecture. But many Muslims are offended by what they view as an attack on Islam by the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination.

Senior Washington correspondent with Al-Arabiya television, Nadia Bilbassy, says most Muslims have reacted with “outrage” over the Pope’s remarks. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Bilbassy says the remarks came at an “extremely sensitive time” when the battle has been drawn as one between “Islam and the West.” So, when the Pope used such a quotation about the followers of the Prophet, Muslims saw it as the “position of the Catholic Church” towards Islam.

But Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says the Pope’s controversial remarks have not dimmed his popularity in his native Germany. There, he says, the scandal is not so much about what the Pope said as about the violent reaction in some places in the Muslim world. And he adds, “We cannot accept that any statement you make about Islam is considered by some people in the Muslim world as offensive and it’s taken out of context” and sometimes results in acts of violence.

Journalist and former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain Akbar Ahmed notes that many Muslims view the Pope’s remarks as yet another example of an “attack coming from the West.” Thus it helps explain – but not justify – some of the violent reactions in countries such as India and Pakistan. Where the Pope can be faulted, Akbar Ahmed says, is for his “failure to connect the dots,” since he is no longer an “obscure professor” but a “world figure.” Akbar Ahmed is also author of Islam under Siege.

Nadia Bilbassy calls “regrettable” the violent response among Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza who burned Christian churches. But she observes, many people are “skeptical” about the sincerity of the Pope’s apologies, and she does not know whether the Pope was “ill advised” or he “was not thinking.”

But Matthias Rueb counters that most Germans and other Europeans – including the “highest representative of the Muslims in Germany” – regard the Pope’s apology as “sufficient.” And, Mr. Rueb argues, the Islamic world needs to “learn that you can criticize religious beliefs without being killed or being threatened.”

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above