World leaders bid to hose down flames of Benedict controversy

As the Holy See seeks to soothe tensions with a stepped up diplomatic effort, Australian and world political and religious leaders have called for calm and for an end to the polemic over Pope Benedict's controversial remarks on Islam.

While agreeing that Muslims are "perfectly entitled" to criticise the Pope's linkage of Islam with evil and violence, Prime Minister John Howard last night said he was "disappointed" and "exasperated" that "whenever the Pope says something (it) provokes demonstrations", the Australian reports.

Mr Howard also agreed with comments by Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, who "has a point" in criticising Muslims for reacting to the Pope's comments with "demonstrations and threats of violence".

NSW Premier Morris Iemma, a Catholic, also said Cardinal Pell was justified in his comments.

"In enlisting the support of the leadership of a community and moderates in that community to rein in extremists, I think that that's an obligation on all," Mr Iemma told the Australian.

"I understand they were general comments about extremists within the community both here and overseas, and reining them in, and in that I support the moderates in the community in asserting a leadership role."

Australian Muslim leaders also backed the call for an end to the polemic. Dr Ameer Ali, chair of the Muslim Community Reference Group said that "the fundamental problem here is the rhetoric or the terminology that comes out of the quotation, that's what angered the people," he said.

"It was a medieval rhetoric which provoked a medieval response, both should be condemned and now the Pope has apologised and that's the end of the matter."

International leaders weigh in on debate

In New York, US President George Bush noted that "the Pope had made some apologies for his remarks" and told Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that he "believed the Pope was sincere in those remarks," a White House spokesperson told reporters.

In Brussels, the European Commission called for Pope Benedict's remarks not to be "deliberately taken out of context" and for freedom of speech to be respected.

While French President Jacques Chirac refused to criticise the Pope, he called for a more diplomatic language.

"It is not my role or my intention to comment on the Pope's statements. I simply want to say, on a general level ... that we must avoid anything that excites tensions between peoples or between religions," President Chirac said on Europe 1 radio.

"We must avoid making any link between Islam, which is a great, respected and respectable religion, and radical Islamism, which is a totally different activity and one of a political nature," President Chirac added.

Pope needs advisers

Other religious leaders and theologians, however, continue to question the Pope's reasons for his remarks.

According to UCA News, Jesuit Fr Tom Michel, who served on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 1981 to 1994 as the Vatican's top expert on Islam, writing in the Turkish political journal Yeni Asya this week said "the deeper question is, why did the pope say what he did in Regensburg?"

Fr Michel, a member of the Indonesian Jesuit province, said that many Muslims as well as Christian bishops, diplomats and journalists, had asked him, "how this have happened?"

He said that one of his "most useful tasks" while serving on the pontifical council was to "look over" John Paul II's speeches to Muslims and propose change if necessary.

He recalled that "Pope John Paul II was very conscientious lest he accidentally say something offensive or disrespectful to Muslims or to the followers of other religions."

Fr Michel also pointed out that John Paul II had trained scholars in Islamic studies on his staff, citing Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as well as himself. Archbishop Fitzgerald was president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue until Pope Benedict reassigned him earlier this year as nuncio to Egypt and the Arab League.

"With Archbishop Fitzgerald's departure, there remains no one in the Vatican who is properly trained in Islamic faith practice and tradition, and the lack becomes glaringly evident on occasions like that of the Regensburg address," Fr Michel wrote.

"Had the Pope's talk been reviewed and controlled by any competent staff person, they would immediately have told the Pope that the citation of Manuel II Paleologus, which was in fact marginal to the Pope's main point, should not be included in the speech," the Jesuit scholar stated.

Fr Michel says that while he believes the Pope did not intend to offend Muslims, it is "beside the point."

"Most of the time when we offend others, we do not intend to do so," he explained.

"Rather, we do so because of ignorance or lack of sensitivity. In such cases, an apology is required." For this reason, "it is also proper for the Pope to ask forgiveness for his offensive remarks, even though, as I believe, he did not intend to offend."

"I pray that Muslims will be generous and extend forgiveness," he said.

Another theologian pose questions

Meanwhile, Hans Kung, the Swiss-born dissident Catholic theologian and expert on Islam, appealed on Tuesday to Benedict XVI to offer a "positive gesture" to Muslims that would demonstrate his esteem for Islam as a world religion.

Speaking to German MDR television, Kung, 78, said Benedict had earlier spoken privately of his desire for an "honest and frank" dialogue with other religions.

It had been wise that the Pope personally voiced his regret about the furore and had not made a Vatican secretary speak on his behalf.

However, a positive gesture was now needed to show that the Pope understood Islam, he told the German broadcaster.

Pope Benedict, who once briefly taught at the same Tubingen faculty as Kung, would not have used the quotation carelessly, the Swiss theologian said, according to a Playfuls.com report.

Kung said it was clear to him that the Pope had thought all of the lecture over thoroughly.

Benedict ought to have quoted a response to the offending quotation from a Muslim, said Kung, who gave the lecture "poor marks." He said the reaction in the Islamic world was not surprising.

An historical context had arisen since the Crusades. Those wars against Islam could not be ignored when one spoke of violence by Islam, said Kung. This still applied in current political conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq or Lebanon.

Pope row in past, PM tells Muslims (The Australian, 20/9/06)
A Disturbing Cartoon And Some Troubling Questions About The Pope's Remarks (UCA News, 19/9/06)
Theologian Kueng Calls For Pope To Voice Esteem For Islam (Playfuls.com, 19/9/06)
Militants vow war over Pope comments (The Age, 19/9/06)
Pell criticised for 'simplistic' reading of Koran (Lateline, ABC, 19/9/06)
Iemma backs Pell on Islam row (Daily Telegraph, 19/9/06)
Vatican in diplomatic offensive (The Peninsula, Qatar, 19/9/06)
Pell calls for East-West dialogue (ABC AM, 19/9/06)
Ali urges end to papal comments controversy (ABC News Online, 19/9/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Provisional text of Pope's speech at University of Regensburg, Faith, Reason and the University, Memories and Reflections (Radio Vaticana, 13/9/06)

Australia's moderate Muslims a sign of hope, Pell says (CathNews, 19/9/06)
Benedict "deeply sorry" for Muslim outrage but violence continues (CathNews, 18/9/09)
Benedict tells priests to serve Christ and be His voice (CathNews, 15/9/06)
Religious violence contrary to God's nature, Pope says (CathNews, 14/9/06)
No chance of world without reason, says Benedict (CathNews, 13/9/06)
Benedict says learn Gospel from Africa and Asia (CathNews, 11/9/06)
Benedict heads home to Bavaria, Germany (CathNews, 8/9/06)

20 Sep 2006