Sephardic chief rabbi criticizes pope's remarks

By Yair Ettinger and Yoav Stern


Elul 24, 5766

The Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel on Sunday sent a letter criticizing the pope for his remarks on Islam to a leading Sunni Islamic legal scholar in Qatar.

In the letter, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote to Sheikh Yusef Kardawi, "our way is to honor every religion and every nation according to their paths, as it is written in the book of prophets: 'because every nation will go in the name of its lord.'"

"Even when there is a struggle between nations" Amar added, "it cannot be turned into a war of religions."

The letter, written in Arabic, was delivered to Kardawi by a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Abdullah Naimar Darwish. Amar sent the letter first to Rabbi Menachem Froman, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, who is known as a champion of inter-religious reconciliation.

In his introduction to the letter, Froman added to Amar's remarks, saying "every Jew who learns the writings of the great sages - who, at the head of them all stands Maimonides - knows that our great thinkers wrote in the Arabic language, lived in Islamic states and participated with the great Muslim thinkers in the effort to explain the words of God, according to the paths of the sages and amidst the difficult bloody battles that we have had since the beginning of Zionism with the Muslims.

"We know... that the war between the Jews and the Muslims is the work of the cursed devil. We know that Islam is named after peace," wrote Froman.

Islamists: Pope has not yet made 'clear apology'
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday said Pope Benedict had not made a "clear apology" for remarks on Islam that sparked anger across the Muslim world.

Pope Benedict said on Sunday he was "deeply sorry" for the anger caused by his remarks on Islam and said a quote he used from a medieval text about holy wars did not reflect his personal thoughts.

Brotherhood deputy leader Mohammed Habib said the pope's apology "does not rise to the level of a clear apology and, based on this, we're calling on the Pope of the Vatican to issue a clear apology that will decisively end any confusion."

Earlier Sunday, however, Habib had described the Pope's remarks as a "sufficient apology," and said the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main opposition movement, would accept Benedict XVI's apology.

"We consider that the new statements represent a retreat from what went before. We can consider them a sufficient apology, even if we had wanted the Pope to outline his ideas and vision of Islam," Habib said earlier Sunday.

On Saturday, the Muslim Brotherhood said a Vatican statement saying the Pope was sorry did not go far enough, and called for a personal apology from the pontiff.

A leading Israeli Arab Islamic group on Sunday said it refused to accept the papal apology, claiming it was still 'insufficient,' Israel Radio reported.

The statement, issued by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, came two days after its leader, Sheik Ra'ad Salah, declared that Jerusalem was destined to become the capital of a pan-Islamic caliphate at a gathering in the northern city of Umm al-Fahm.

Two West Bank churches were set afire early Sunday as a wave of Muslim anger over comments by Pope Benedict XVI on Islam grew throughout the Palestinian areas and the Muslim world. The two arson cases followed Saturday attacks on five churches in the West Bank and Gaza.

Speaking to pilgrims at his Castelgandolfo summer residence, the Pope said he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims."

"These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect," he said.

Wave of attacks on churches
In the West Bank town of Tul Karm Sunday, a stone church built 170 years ago was torched before dawn and its entire inside was destroyed, local Christian officials said. In the village of Tubas, a small church was attacked with firebombs and partially burned, Christians said. Neither church is Catholic, the officials said.

On Saturday, Muslims hurled firebombs and opened fire at five churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest the Pope's comments, sparking concerns of a rift between Palestinian Muslims and Christians.

Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Landplanned to visit the city of Nablus in an effort to repair Christian-Muslim relations later Sunday.

Christians are believed to number about 50,000 people in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, about 2 percent of the total Palestinian population. Relations are generally good and the Palestinian Authority has made considerable efforts to ensure their political representation, though tensions periodically flare up.

The Pope last week, in a talk rejecting any religious motivation for violence, cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

The pontiff did not endorse that description, but he did not question it, and his words set off a firestorm of protests across the Muslim world.

Army Radio reported Sunday that security had been stepped up for the Pontiff, for fear of attempts by extremists to harm him.

In Tul Karm, church official Daoud Firoba said Palestinian security had guarded the Greek Orthodox church until midnight, but then left. The entire inside of the sanctuary was burned, including furniture and an ornate wooden door, Firoba said. Books that are 500 years old survived, he said.

"This hurts my heart, this is against my God and my religion," Firoba said. "But I think that those who burned it don't understand that we are Palestinians and we are not related."

The church is used by three Christian families left in Tul Karm, Firoba said.

In the small village of Tubas, Christian resident Michel Sayer said that he smelled smoke at three in the morning. "I came and saw the church was on fire and immediately we put it out," Sayer said. "We found two firebombs outside that were not thrown in and three inside that had been thrown." About 100 Christians live in Tubas, Sayer said.

Five churches attacked on Saturday
The Saturday attacks on four of the 10 churches in the West Bank town of Nablus, and on the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City unsettled a relatively peaceful coexistence in the city.

The assaults began with fire bombings of Nablus' Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches, which left trails of black scorch marks in their wake. At least five firebombs were hurled at the Anglican church, whose door was later set ablaze in a separate attack. Smoke billowed from the church as firefighters put out the flames

In a phone call to The Associated Press, a group calling itself the "Lions of Monotheism" claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were meant to protest the pope's remarks about Islam.

Hours later, four masked gunmen doused the main doors of Nablus' Roman and Greek Catholic churches with lighter fluid, then set them ablaze. They also opened fire on the buildings, pocking their outer walls with bullet holes.

In Gaza City, militants opened fire from a car at a Greek Orthodox church, hitting the facade. A policeman at the scene said he saw a car escape with armed men inside. Explosive devices were set off at the same Gaza church on Friday, causing minor damage.

There were no claims of responsibility for the last three attacks. Said Siyam, the interior minister from Hamas, ordered extra protection for churches across the West Bank and Gaza.

"The atmosphere is charged already, and the wise should not accept such acts," said Father Yousef Saada, a Greek Catholic priest in Nablus.

Ayman Daraghmeh, a Hamas legislator, denounced the attacks, and urged Palestinian police to do more to protect Christian sites.