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Sunday, September 17, 2006 - Page updated at 08:01 AM

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Pope expresses regret; Muslim world boils

Los Angeles Times

VATICAN CITY — With furor spreading throughout the Islamic world, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep regret Saturday that a speech he gave at a German university last week had offended Muslims.

In a statement released by his secretary of state, Benedict reiterated his "respect and esteem for those who profess Islam," adding he hoped they will be "helped to understand the correct meaning" of his words.

It did not seem likely that the pope's expression of regret would satisfy the clamors from many corners of the world that he apologize. He distanced himself from the language that Muslims found objectionable, but did not retract the words nor ask for forgiveness.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest and most influential Islamic organizations in the Middle East, issued an initial response that the pope's overture was insufficient.

Hostile reaction to the pope's speech, a dense lecture in which he cited a medieval Byzantine emperor who viewed Islam as "evil and inhuman," has plunged Benedict's 17-month-old papacy into its most difficult diplomatic crisis yet.

From Muslim communities in Europe to Egypt, Pakistan and points in between, a chorus of anger has assailed the pope. His effigy was burned in India; his name has been invoked in comparison to Hitler.

Morocco became the first Islamic country to recall its ambassador to the Holy See. In Egypt, Coptic Christian leaders joined their Muslim counterparts in condemning the pope.

Earlier Saturday, Palestinian gunmen firebombed four Christian churches in the West Bank city of Nablus and opened fire on a fifth in the Gaza Strip. Iraqi and Somali militants threatened to kill the pope or attack Rome.

The prime minister of Turkey demanded a retraction of "ugly and unfortunate" comments. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state who issued the communique, said the pope in no way endorsed the passage he quoted from Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and meant it only as a means to illustrate the rejection of religious motivation for violence.

"The holy father 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.

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