Vatican dismisses bin Laden accusation

The Baltimore Sun

ROME -- The Vatican rejected yesterday an audiotape accusation from Osama bin Laden that Pope Benedict XVI was leading a "new crusade" against Muslims, but Italian security officials were concerned about the threats included in bin Laden's new message.

"These accusations are absolutely unfounded," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the pope's chief spokesman, said in a telephone interview. "There is nothing new in this, and it doesn't have any particular significance for us."

The new audio message attributed to bin Laden was released Wednesday night and was addressed to "the intelligent ones in the European Union." It was posted on a militant Web site on Wednesday, and an English transcription was distributed yesterday by the SITE Intelligence Group in Bethesda, which tracks al-Qaida postings on the Internet.

The audiotape listed broad grievances, but specifically mentioned the pope, and coincided with the busiest week of the year at the Vatican, the week leading up to Easter. The pope will appear at several public events, including the Good Friday procession of the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum.

In the five-minute message, the speaker said there would be a "severe" reaction against the publication in Europe of cartoons that many Muslims consider offensive to the prophet Muhammad. He said the cartoons - one reprinted in February in Denmark, more than two years after they were first published there - "came in the framework of a new crusade in which the pope of the Vatican has played a large, lengthy role."

Without naming any specific action or target, the speaker said, "The response will be what you see and not what you hear, and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God."

Lombardi dismissed the accusations, noting that the pope had condemned the cartoons several times and stressed that "religion must be respected."

Al-Qaida and its supporters have issued several threats against the pope since he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor in a speech in Germany two years ago referring to Islam as "evil and inhuman." The pope apologized for the anger caused by the speech, saying that view was not his own.

Asked about heightened security concerns, Lombardi said the new message "does not in any way affect the conduct of the pope." He said the Vatican had no plans for any more security than what was already in place for the public events leading up to Easter.

But an Italian security official was quoted anonymously yesterday by the ANSA news agency as saying that officials were taking the threats "seriously."

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