Mohammad Zubair  /  AP
A supporter of a religious party participates in a rally against Pope Benedict on Monday in Peshawar, Pakistan. The placard reads "Muslim women consider pope's remarks as prelude of crusade."
By Producer
NBC News
updated 9/19/2006 1:45:29 PM ET 2006-09-19T17:45:29

CAIRO — As Pope Benedict continues to face demands for an unequivocal apology to Muslims for comments they say depicted Islam as a violent faith, many in the Arab world view the incident as part of a U.S.-led war against their religion.

They see the pontiff's words as yet another broadside in a campaign that includes the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the recent conflict in Lebanon and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

And, they say, the backlash to the now-famous quote is likely to continue unless the pope offers a more definitive apology that the ones he has issued so far.

Demand a clearer apology
Benedict said Sunday that he was "deeply sorry" that Muslims took offense, and stressed that the words he was quoting in a speech last week did not reflect his own opinion. In the address, the pope cited a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

Many Muslims, however, are not satisfied. On Monday, a popular and influential TV sheikh, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, said the pope had failed to apologize. He went on to call on Muslims to stage a "peaceful day of anger" this Friday, asking them to hold demonstrations and sit-ins in mosques after sabbath prayers.

Last year, Al-Qaradawi was at the center of public furor over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad when he called for a similar "day of rage.” Some of the massive demonstrations that ensued turned violent. 

Al-Qaradawi’s organization, the International Union for Muslim Scholars, represents 2,000 Sunni and Shiite imams, sheikhs and academics. "We will accept nothing less than a full retraction," said Dr. Mohamed El-Awa, secretary general of the group.

El-Awa claims that the organization is against violence and that he has gone on TV to urge that churches be protected. "We have asked followers to work within the legal framework of every country," he says. 

Why have they decided to take such a strong stand against the Pope's use of the quote?

"I would say it is a license given by the head of the Catholic Church to Western countries from the United States to Australia to take whatever actions they want against Muslim minorities,” said El-Awa. “Because of this we are giving the strongest warning we can."

Many other groups are planning to join in the demonstrations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic fundamentalist party. "No, the Pope's statement cannot be considered an apology,” said Mohamed Habib, the Brotherhood spokesman. “He must introduce a clear-cut and perfect apology.” Otherwise, he added, relations must be severed with the Vatican.

Sense of being under attack
Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, head of Al Azhar, the most influential Sunni group in Egypt, told a Catholic delegation Tuesday that the pope must make a stronger statement of apology. Tantawi's rejection, coming from a highly-regarded bastion of moderate Sunni Islam, is likely to set the tone for many other Muslim believers and organizations.

"There is a general feeling that Islam is being targeted and the war against terrorism is in fact a war against Islam," explained Dr. Gamal Abdul Gawad, senior political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “There is a strong feeling of victimization among Muslims. This is how they perceived [the pope's quote], as a part of attitudes that are not friendly toward the Muslim." 

That sentiment was echoed in Egyptian newspapers. In a column in Al Messa, an Egyptian daily, Mohamed Fouda wrote, "Benedict, known to be a hard-line conservative, intended to condemn violence attributed to Islamist groups. But he seemed to reiterate the same theory that places terror and Islam in the same corner.”

An editorial in the Egyptianopposition newspaper, Wafd, stated that: "Muslims have been accustomed to organized political attack on Islams. … But when a pope attacks Islam, the resulting crisis is of serious dimensions."

And in the Saudi English daily Arab News, Sheikh Riyad Nadwi wrote, "I was not surprised, given the global neocon principle of callous engagement with Muslims, to see a modern philosophical treatise predicated on medieval insensitivity."  

Habib, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said he sees the pope's comments as a followup to President Bush's statement relating Islam to fascism. His thought is echoed by Dr. Zaquloul Al-Najjar, an Islamic scholar and religious commentator, "It is a link between all these chains: between Bush saying Islam is a fascist religion and [the pope] would come and say Islam is a terrorist religion and would slander Prophet Muhammad."

Media stoking flames?
Media coverage of the dispute has been intense. For first three days running, the story led newscasts on local and satellite stations and has consistently been a front-page story in all major Arab newspapers.

"There was no escape," said media analyst Dr. Hussein Amin of the American University of Cairo. 

"The coverage was very intensive and there were a lot of statements … [from] all kinds of Islamic organizations and political groups which were opposed [to the pope's speech].  It was on satellite and national television."

Bishop Mouneer Anis of the Anglican-Episcopal Diocese of Egypt and North Africa saw the story building. He says he twice called clergy at Al Azhar, the most influential Sunni institution, and tried to explain that the pope's quote was taken out of context, but met with little success. "They didn't take it much into consideration,” said Anis. “When people are furious and emotional, it is very difficult [for them] to listen.” 

And although Anis says he understood the anguish of Muslims, he felt that the media, and Al-Jazeera in particular, had stoked public anger by attributing the quote to the Pope himself.

"The media can make a clash of civilizations. It can easily do this when Al-Jazeera presented it in this way,” said Anis. “The media can bring peace and reconciliation or it can destroy our world," said Anis.

Fears of sectarian violence
Anis's concerns are widespread in countries where Christians are a significant minority. Officials and clerics worry the pope's statement will create a backlash against Eastern Christians, as evidenced by the attack on seven churches in Gaza and the West Bank and the murder of an Italian nun in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Some Islamic parties attempted to head off sectarian tensions. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, a leading member of Hamas, denounced attacks on churches and called Palestinian Christians “brothers” while noting that the highest Christian authority in Palestine denounced the statements against Islam. 

And despite the fact that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is planning to join in protests on Friday, the group's leader said relations with Christians should remain "good, civilized and cooperative."

Meanwhile, Christian clergy hastened to prevent inter-religious tensions by distancing themselves from the pope's statement. Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Christian Orthodox Church of Egypt, with seven million followers, said Sunday evening that he hoped Copts and Muslims would retain their own relations uninfluenced by outside ideas.

"It is incumbent on us to keep our own kind relations within our own Eastern sphere, away from Western thought and its effects," said the Orthodox pope at a press conference.  

Charlene Gubash is an NBC News Producer based in Cairo, Egypt. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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