VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI "sincerely regrets" that Muslims have been offended by some of his words in a recent speech in Germany, the Vatican said Saturday - stopping short of issuing an apology the Islamic world has demanded.
The new Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the pope's position on Islam is unmistakably in line with Vatican teaching that the church regards Muslims with "esteem."
Thus, the pope "sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions," Bertone said in a statement.
"Indeed it was he who, before the religious fervor of Muslim believers, warned secularized Western culture to guard against 'the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom,'" Bertone said, citing words from another speech that Benedict gave during the German trip.
"In reiterating his respect and esteem for those who profess Islam, he hopes that they will be helped to understand the correct meaning of his words," the cardinal said.
The words, in a speech Benedict gave to university professors earlier in the week during a pilgrimage to his homeland, angered many in the Islamic world and raised doubts over whether a planned trip to predominantly Muslim Turkey in late November would go ahead.
Muslim leaders have been unappeased by previous overtures by Vatican officials and have demanded the pope apologize for his remarks on Islam and jihad, or holy war. The Vatican has said that Benedict only meant to emphasize the incompatibility between faith and war.
Benedict on Tuesday cited an obscure Medieval text that characterizes some of the teachings of Islam's founder as "evil and inhuman" - comments some experts took as a signal the Vatican was staking a more demanding stance for its dealings with the Muslim world.
When giving the speech, the pope stressed that he was quoting the words of a Byzantine emperor and did not comment directly on the "evil and inhuman" assessment.
Bertone, referring Saturday to the emperor's "opinion," said "the Holy Father did not mean, nor does he mean, to make that opinion his own in any way."
The cardinal pointed out that the pope was speaking in an academic setting and suggested that a "complete and attentive reading" of the entire text would make clear the pope's reflections about the relationship between religion and violence in general.
He said the pope's speech ended with "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come."
Bertone also cited other recent statements by the pope which he said makes "unequivocally" clear the pope's work in favor of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.
He noted that during Benedict's pilgrimage to Germany last year, shortly after being elected pope, the pontiff called for both Christians and Muslims to walk down the "paths of reconciliation and learn to life with respect for each other's identity."
In a recent message to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's interreligious prayer gathering in Assisi, Italy, Benedict stressed that violence should not be attributed to religion in itself but to "cultural limitations" over time.
The pope's first public appearance to the general public since his return from Germany is set for Sunday, when he is to greet the faithful at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence in the Alban Hills near Rome.
The rage unleashed by Benedict's comments stirred fears of anti-Western protests like those that followed the publication in a Danish newspaper of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Two churches in the West Bank were hit by firebombs Saturday, and a group claiming responsibility said it was protesting Benedict's words.