VATICAN CITY, Sept 16: The Vatican said on Saturday Pope Benedict was sorry that Muslims had been offended by a speech whose meaning had been misconstrued, but Morocco withdrew its ambassador as anger at his words flared on.

“The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in a statement.

But Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rejected the the statement. “This (saying sorry) does not constitute an apology. The Vatican Secretary of State says that the pope is sorry because his statements had been badly interpreted, but there is no bad interpretation,” Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, a senior official, said.

“The pope made a mistake, he must recognise his mistake and apologise.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German politicians defended the pontiff’s comments, saying he had been misunderstood.

“It was an invitation to dialogue between religions,” she told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper in an interview.

Pope Benedict’s first big crisis since his election 17 months ago was sparked by a speech in his native Germany on Tuesday that seemed to endorse a Christian view that early Islam was spread by violence.

In the speech, the pope criticised the concept of jihad, saying that violence was ‘incompatible with the nature of God’.

But Cardinal Bertone said the pontiff ‘had absolutely no intention’ of causing offence to Muslims.

The cardinal, walking into the crisis only a day after taking over as ‘deputy pope’, said the 79-year-old pope confirmed ‘his respect and esteem for those who profess the Islamic faith’ and hoped his words would be understood ‘in their true sense’.

The academic speech was meant as a ‘a clear and radical rejection of religiously motivated violence, wherever it comes from’, said the statement, which came as criticism of the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics swelled.

The backlash has cast doubt on a planned visit to Turkey by the pope in November.

Morocco’s King Mohammed recalled his ambassador to the Vatican in protest.

The pope’s next scheduled public appearance is his Sunday Angelus blessing, when he often comments on current affairs.

Vatican insiders and diplomats say the pope may have mixed up his new role with his former posts as a theologian and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was known as a disciplinarian.

TURKISH DISPLEASURE: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said on Saturday before the Vatican statement that the pope’s comments were ‘ugly and unfortunate’ and should be withdrawn.

Catholic bishops in Turkey feared the angry local reaction, led by the Grand Mufti, could show public opinion was shifting against the pope’s planned visit. But Turkish officials said they hoped the row would blow over and the visit would go ahead.

Turkish paper Vatan quoted a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party as saying Pope Benedict ‘will go down in history in the same category as leaders like Hitler and Mussolini’.

Yemen’s president publicly denounced the pontiff and five churches — only one of them Catholic — were attacked in the West Bank, although no one was hurt.

Egypt’s foreign ministry summoned the Vatican envoy to Cairo to express ‘extreme regret’ at Pope Benedict’s speech.

CALLS FOR APOLOGY: The New York Times said in an editorial the pope must issue a ‘deep and persuasive’ apology for quotes used in his speech.

“The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly,” it said.—Reuters