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'Pope did not mean to hurt Muslims'

A Vatican spokesman comes in defence of Benedict XVI after Muslim groups criticise him for comments on Islam.

india Updated: Sep 15, 2006 12:06 IST

A Vatican spokesman defended Pope Benedict XVI against criticism from Muslim groups for comments he made suggesting that Islam allowed conversion by force.

Benedict "did not mean to hurt the feelings of believing Muslims," spokesman Federico Lombardi said following the Pope's return to Rome after a trip to Germany, where he had made the controversial comments.

Turkey's highest Islamic authority had urged the Pope to apologise for the remarks.

Ali Bardokoglu, President of the state-controlled Religious Affairs Department, told the NTV television station that if the Pope's statements "show a hatred in his heart, then we face a dangerous situation".

In Germany, Muslim leaders joined in the criticism, saying the Pope's implication that Christianity was bound by rationality, but Islam was not, was unacceptable.

The Pope's controversial remarks came on Tuesday when he was quoting a conversation that took place in Ankara in the year 1391 between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on Christianity and Islam.

"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 quoted Manuel as saying.

After quoting this, the Pope also quoted an academic, Theodore Khoury, who edited the original dialogue, as saying, "In Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality".

Bardakoglu was particularly incensed with the latter quotation.

"They used to believe in three Gods," Bardakoglu said. "They say Jesus is the son of God. Where is the rationality in that?"

Bardakoglu also called for the cancellation of the Pope's scheduled visit to Turkey in November.

"I wouldn't expect anything good to come from a visit to the Islamic world by someone who thinks like this about Islam's prophet. First he must save his heart from this hatred," Bardakoglu said.

Aiman Mazyek, Secretary General of one of several national Islamic groups in Germany, the Council of Muslims, told the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, "I can barely believe the Pope sees the distinction between Islam and Christianity in attitudes to force.

"After all, the history of Christianity is also a violent one, you just need to consider the Crusades or the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims in Spain."

Ali Kizilkaya, chairman of the same council, said Benedict's remarks were "extremely regrettable" since the Pope had also appealed while in Germany for a dialogue among religions. "This was not a positive thing to say in such a dialogue," said Kizilkaya.

"If we were all to start digging up examples from history, then a dialogue would hardly be possible at all."