Palestinians attack five churches in West Bank, Gaza

Sunday, September 17, 2006

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI "sincerely regrets" offending Muslims with his reference to an obscure medieval text that characterizes some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman," the Vatican said Saturday.

But the statement stopped short of the apology demanded by Islamic leaders around the globe, and anger among Muslims remained intense. Palestinians attacked five churches in the West Bank and Gaza over the pope's remarks Tuesday in a speech to university professors in his native Germany.

An Iraqi insurgent group threatened the Vatican with a suicide attack over the pope's remarks on Islam, according to a statement posted Saturday on the Web.

In a broader talk rejecting any religious motivation for violence, Benedict cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The pontiff did not endorse that description, but he did not question it, and his words set off a firestorm of protests across the Muslim world.

The new Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the pope's position on Islam is unmistakably in line with Vatican teaching that says the church "esteems" Muslims.

Benedict "thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions," Bertone said in a statement.

In West Bank attacks on churches, Palestinians used guns, firebombs and lighter fluid, leaving church doors charred and walls scorched by flames and pocked with bullet holes. Nobody was reported injured. An Anglican church and a Greek Orthodox church were hit. A Greek Orthodox church was also attacked in Gaza City.

A group calling itself "Lions of Monotheism" said by phone that the attacks were a protest against the pope's remarks on Islam.

During his speech, Benedict stressed that he was quoting words of a Byzantine emperor and did not comment directly on the "evil and inhuman" assessment. On Saturday, Bertone said that "the Holy Father did not mean, nor does he mean, to make that opinion his own in any way."

Benedict quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and an educated Persian on the truths of Christianity and Islam.

"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just 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 he preached."'

The grand sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque, the Sunni Arab world's most powerful institution, condemned the pope's remarks as "reflecting ignorance."

The Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and Lebanon's top Sunni Muslim religious authority also denounced the pope's comments.

British Muslims sought to calm the situation.

"We welcome his apology and we hope now we can work together and build bridges. At the same time we would condemn all forms of violent demonstration," Muhammad Umar, chairman of Britain's Ramadhan Foundation, a youth organization, told Sky News.

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