Turkey's top Islamic cleric asks pope to take back remarks about Islam

Turkey's top Islamic cleric asked Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday to take back recent remarks he made about Islam, and unleashed a string of counteraccusations against Christianity, raising tensions before the pontiff's November visit his first to a Muslim country.

The Vatican hastened to defend the pope, saying that the pontiff wanted to promote respect and dialogue toward other religions, "obviously also toward Islam."

Religious Affairs Directorate head Ali Bardakoglu, a cleric who sets the religious agenda for Turkey, said he was deeply offended by remarks about Islamic holy war made Tuesday by the pope during a visit to Germany, and called the remarks "extraordinarily worrying, saddening and unfortunate."

Bardakoglu said that "if the pope was reflecting the spite, hatred and enmity" of others in the Christian world, then the situation was even worse.

Benedict and his entourage were heading back to the papal summer residence near Rome on Thursday when Bardakoglu spoke.

A few hours after Benedict's arrival back in Italy, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, insisted that the pontiff respects Islam.

Benedict wants to "cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, obviously also toward Islam," Lombardi, who had accompanied the pope in Germany, said in a statement released by the Vatican.

"It is opportune to note that that which is at the pope's heart is a clear and radical refusal of the religious motivation of violence," Lombardi said.

"It certainly wasn't the intention of the pope to carry out a deep examination of jihad (holy war) and on Muslim thought on it, much less to offend the sensibility of Muslim believers," the Vatican spokesman said.

"Proper consideration of the religious dimension is, in fact, an essential premise for a fruitful dialogue with the great cultures and religions of the world," Lombardi said, reports AP.