GENEVA Islamic countries asked the U.N. Human Rights Council to examine the question of religious tolerance on Monday, saying that Pope Benedict's remarks on Islam threaten to alienate Muslims from the West.
Masood Khan, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said Muslim countries were "reassured that the Pope has expressed regrets, distanced himself from the text that caused offense and renewed his invitation for a frank and sincere dialogue with mutual respect.
But Khan, speaking on behalf of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the speech was nevertheless a mistake — a sentiment echoing the response of many Muslims around the world to Benedict's reading last week of a medieval text that characterized some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman" and referred to spreading Islam "by the sword."
"The statement was regrettable as it showed lack of understanding, albeit inadvertent, about Islam and its prophet," Khan told the 47-country council, the United Nations' human rights watchdog. "Such a tendency also threatens deeper alienation between the West and the world of Islam and hurts the ongoing efforts to promote dialogue and harmony amongst religions."
He asked the council to set aside time during its session that opened Monday to address "religious tolerance and related issues." The council is meeting until Oct. 6.
"We hope that any attempts to revive medievalism would be replaced with the enlightened and reformed approach to forge strong relationships between Christianity and Islam," Khan said. "To associate Islam with violence is to negate the basic tenets of a faith practiced for 15 centuries and which now has more than one billion followers — who are one-fifth of humanity."
Benedict said on Sunday that he was "deeply sorry" his speech last week at the University of Regensburg in Germany had offended Muslims and said the medieval text he quoted did not reflect his own opinions.
Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's representative to the U.N. in Geneva, told the council that the pontiff's comments needed to be understood in "a proper perspective in a spirit of peaceful and constructive dialogue.
"In fairness, the text of the Pope's university lecture should be read in its entirety," Tomasi said. "It has been surprising that manifestations had begun even before the speech was translated into any language accessible to the persons demonstrating, only on the basis of headlines misrepresenting it in the media, which must assume their responsibility."
Anger has been intense in Muslim lands since the pope's speech.
Two churches were set on fire in the West Bank, raising to at least seven the number of church attacks in Palestinian areas over the weekend blamed on outrage sparked by the speech.
There was also concern that the furor was behind the shooting death of an Italian missionary nun at the hospital where she worked for years in the Horn of Africa nation of Somalia. The killing came just hours after a Somali cleric condemned the pope's speech.
Benedict's expression of sorrow for the offense he caused satisfied some Islamic leaders, but others were still demanding an apology for the words, including in Turkey, where questions have been raised about whether Benedict should go ahead with a visit scheduled for November as the first trip of his papacy to a predominantly Muslim nation.