VATICAN CITY — VATICAN CITY -- With furor spreading throughout the Islamic world, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep regret yesterday that a speech he gave at a German university last week had offended Muslims.
In a statement released by his new secretary of state, Pope Benedict reiterated his "respect and esteem for those who profess Islam," adding that 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 referred to 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.
A chorus of anger has assailed the pope from Muslim communities in Europe, Egypt, Pakistan and points in between. His effigy was burned in India, and his name has been invoked in comparison to Hitler and Mussolini.
Yesterday Morocco became the first Islamic country to recall its ambassador to the Holy See. In Cairo, Coptic Christian leaders joined their Muslim counterparts in condemning the pope.
Earlier yesterday, 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, where the pope is scheduled to travel in November, demanded a retraction of "ugly and unfortunate" comments. "The pope spoke like a politician rather than as a man of religion," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
The trip, Pope Benedict's first to a Muslim country, may be in jeopardy, although Vatican officials hoped that yesterday's statement might clear the air.
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 only meant 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.
"He hopes they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words" with the goal of "quickly surmounting this present uneasy moment," he added.
The speech was delivered at the University of Regensburg, where the then-Joseph Ratzinger taught theology in the 1970s. Pope Benedict returned during a tour of his native Bavaria.
It was meant to be one of the most important documents of his papacy. The pope labored long hours drafting the Regensburg speech over his summer holidays. It lays out the central tenets of his papacy, including the importance of the partnership of reason and faith in Western Christianity.
His brief references to Islam seemed to portray it as a historically violent faith reliant on forced conversions and jihad, which he translated as holy war. Christianity's own bloodstained past was not mentioned.
Vatican experts were divided over whether Pope Benedict miscalculated the depth of anger his words would inspire, or whether he might not care. As a consummate theologian, the role he played for the past quarter-century, he is not averse to debate and controversy.
Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.