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Vatican Struggles to Smother Islam Controversy

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

Nearly a week after Pope Benedict made remarks seen as hostile to Islam, there's been no let-up in the anger and protests among Muslims across the globe. Yesterday the pope said he was deeply sorry for having caused offense -when he quoted a 14th century text that describes some of the teachings of Islam as evil and inhuman - in an address last Tuesday and Germany.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome. She joins us now. Sylvia, religious and political leaders throughout the Muslim world have been demanding a papal apology. Did they get that yet?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well his exact words were, I am deeply sorry for the reactions to a few passages of my speech considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. He insisted his words were misinterpreted and that the real sense of his speech was an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue with great mutual respect. In an interview today, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said that the pope's words had been heavily manipulated. And he ordered Vatican ambassadors in Muslim countries to illustrate and explain to religious and political leaders there, the original text of the speech, which also said that violence is not rational and therefore is incompatible with the nature of God.

To most analysts, the pope's words did not mean he has backed down. And Muslim reaction has been mixed. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt first said it was a sufficient apology, then later backtracked and said it wants a clear apology. In Turkey, one minister said being sorry and apologizing are two different things. But the head of the country's Directorate for Religious Affairs welcomed the clarification. Iran followed Morocco's lead and called back its ambassador to the Vatican in a sign of protest. A total of seven churches were set on fire in the West Bank, and the Vatican is very concerned that the killing of an Italian nun in Somalia could be linked to the uproar because it came right after a Somali cleric had condemned the pope's speech.

NEARY: How is all this likely to affect Catholic-Muslim relations in the future?

POGGIOLI: It's too early to say, especially because Benedict's approach to the dialogue with Islam differs from John Paul II. Benedict does not want interfaith encounters with Muslims because he does not put Catholicism and Islam on an equal footing. He's concerned about Europe losing its Christian identity - both to secularism and to the arrival of Muslim immigrants. He's interested, primarily, in what the Vatican calls a cultural and political dialogue with Islam, and in reciprocity - which means religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries. Vatican officials often cite the example of Saudi Arabia, where churches are banned; or the case of Turkey, where recently several priests have been killed.

NEARY: And what's the reaction there in Europe, Sylvia?

POGGIOLI: Well, several Muslim organizations here expressed relief and analysts point out that there were no street protests by Muslims in Europe against the pope. What I think is interesting is that editorial comment in several left-leaning European papers has tilted toward the pope. Britain's The Guardian said there cannot be dialogue without rigor and openness, and added that the Muslim world should also take pains to be thoughtful in its response and perhaps less quick to take offense. And the French paper Le Monde appealed to Muslim moderates, who it said are also victims of extremism, to speak out clearly against fundamentalism and violence. Otherwise, the paper said, the Christian-Muslim dialogue won't go anywhere.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

NEARY: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.