As security was beefed up around Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday night, the Mujahideen's Army movement in Iraq threatened to carry out a suicide attack against the Pope in revenge for his comments about Islam and jihad.
Churches attacked in Gaza, W. Bank
On a website used by rebel movements in Iraq, a message posted by the Mujahideen's Army said members of the organization would "smash the crosses in the house of the dog from Rome."
European religious and political leaders have backed the Pope in the wake of the Muslim protests over his academic lecture at Regensburg University Tuesday, saying the pope's words had been misinterpreted.
"Rather than criticizing Islam, the pope is actually offering it a helping hand by suggesting that it do away with the cycle of violence," Fr. Samir K. Samir, SJ, one of the Vatican's leading experts on Islam, wrote in the Catholic newspaper Asia News.
The pope's academic lecture "was trying to show how Western society - including the Church - has become secularized by removing from the concept of Reason, its spiritual dimension and origins which are in God," Fr. Samir stated.
While European Muslims were quick to attack the pope's words, the continent's political leaders declined to follow. "Whoever criticizes the pope misunderstood the aim of his speech," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild.
"It was an invitation to dialogue between religions," she said on Friday. Benedict "expressly spoke in favor of this dialogue, which is something I also support and consider urgent and necessary."
"What Benedict XVI emphasized was a decisive and uncompromising renunciation of all forms of violence in the name of religion," Merkel noted.
This is a "storm in a tea cup," the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, told The Jerusalem Post. "Anything Pope Benedict says should be weighed carefully. He is not given to slight or idle remarks," he added, dismissing Muslim charges the Pope had "rubbished" Islam.
"If he quoted something said 600 years ago, we should not assume that this represents the Pope's beliefs about Islam today," he said.
Lord Carey, who chairs the Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East, has long been active in Christian-Muslim dialogue, and in 2002 signed an accord in Alexandria with the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel calling for an end to violence, suicide bombings and a resumption of the peace process in the Middle East.
"Muslims, as well as Christians, must learn to enter into dialogue without crying 'foul'," Lord Carey said. "We live in perilous times, and we must not only separate religion from violence but also not give religious legitimacy to violence in any shape or form."
Italian European parliament vice president Mario Mauro condemned as "monstrous" the manipulation of the pope's remarks by Islamic leaders which he claimed were used to "hit out at Christians and the West."
The controversy was evidence of the "gravity of the danger we are facing" he told the ANSA press agency on September 15, and urged Europeans to "defend reason" against the onslaught of "Islamist-Nazi ideology that permeates fundamentalist thought."
The Western press was divided over the pope's remarks. The New York Times editorialized on Saturday that the pope must give a "deep and persuasive" apology for his remarks as "the world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly," it said.
However, the Guardian commented that the pope was "innocent of the charges of stirring up hatred against Islam being made against him."
"It is difficult to believe that those making the claims," the Guardian's religious affairs correspondent, Stephen Bates, noted, "can possibly have read the remarks in full or in their proper context." Muslim concerns were "exaggerated and misplaced," Fr. Samir, a professor at the Universite Saint Joseph in Beirut, the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and the Centre de Theologie Sevres in Paris, wrote.
"Initial reactions in the Muslim world show that the Pope was misunderstood," he said, and some "comments made by Western Muslims were superficial and fed the circus-like criticism" of "emotional outbursts in response to hearsay."
Benedict's quote from the Koran, "There is no compulsion in religion," (Sura 2,256), was offered in the context of a medieval dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian Muslim.
"The Holy Father chose this text because it contained a 'key sentence' in which the Emperor criticizes the Muslim for Islam's violence as exemplified by the command to spread the faith by the sword," Fr. Samir said.
However, the argument being proffered by the pope was that "anyone who engages in violence ceases being a believer; anyone, Christian or Muslim, who goes along with violence goes against Reason and God, who is the source of Reason," he stated.
"Sadly, some people cannot avoid seeing the conflict between the West and Islam except in political terms. Since the Pope is a Westerner, it must logically follow that he is 'against' us. And having failed to understand what the Pope says, all that they can say is that he criticized jihad and for this reason he certainly 'must' be an enemy," Fr. Samir said.
The tragedy in this controversy, Fr. Samir suggested was that "only by listening to the Pope's suggestions, and those of a few Muslim intellectuals, can Islam's chances for renewal become real."
"It is high time that Islam deal with modernity; not to be swallowed up by it, but rather to take what good it has to offer and improve on it," he said.