The Vatican rejected on Thursday fresh accusations from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the publication of cartoons mocking Islam's Prophet Mohammad was part of a "new crusade" involving Pope Benedict.
"These accusations are totally unfounded," the chief Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi told Reuters, in response to an audio recording by bin Laden which was posted on the Internet to coincide with the birthday of the founder of Islam.
The Saudi-born militant leader said Europe would be punished for the cartoons, which were first published by a Danish paper in September 2005 and unleashed a bloody reaction after other newspapers around the world reprinted them the following year.
Last month several Danish newspapers republished one of the cartoons in solidarity with the cartoonist after three men were arrested on suspicion of plans to kill him. This sparked a fresh outburst of protest by Muslims.
"Your publications of these drawings -- part of a new crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican had a significant role -- is a confirmation from you that the war continues," said bin Laden, addressing "those who are wise at the European Union".
Lombardi said bin Laden's accusations were not surprising.
"It is natural to think that he would lump the Vatican and the Pope together with all his perceived enemies. But this is not correct," he said.
He recalled that the Pope himself had been quick to condemn the Danish cartoons and had launched a wider criticism of depictions of religious figures that offend members of different faiths.
He also pointed out that Pope Benedict, who himself deeply offended many Muslims with a 2006 speech depicting Islam as a violent faith, recently set up a permanent official dialogue with Muslim leaders.