Pope says words 'misunderstood' by Muslims

Vatican City - Pope Benedict XVI has told thousands of pilgrims at the Vatican that worldwide Muslim anger over his speech in Germany last week was the result of an "unfortunate misunderstanding".

Benedict also expressed respect for followers of all religions, "particularly Muslims", during his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday.

He reiterated that parts of the speech which offended Muslims did not reflect his personal opinion, and hoped it could yet lead to dialogue between religions.

The leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics had come under increasing pressure to make an unequivocal apology over his comments linking Islam with violence.

A personal expression of regret on Sunday in which he said he was "deeply sorry" for causing offense failed to fully appease Muslim leaders.

Before a packed and expectant St Peter's Square, the 79-year-old pope gave a day-by-day account of his six-day visit to his native Bavaria last week, including the address at Regensburg University which offended Muslims.

The speech, in which he quoted a medieval emperor criticising some teachings of the Prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman", sparked several days of protests in Muslim countries.

"In no way did I wish to make my own the words of the medieval emperor. I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together," the pope explained to pilgrims.

"I hope that my profound respect for world religions and for Muslims, who 'worship the one God' and with whom we 'promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity' is clear," he said, citing the 1965 Nostra Aetate document under which the Vatican formally recognises the major non-Christian faiths.

"Let us continue the dialogue both between religions and between modern reason and the Christian faith!" he concluded, to warm applause from flag-waving pilgrims.

On Sunday, the pope had said he was "deeply sorry" for the reaction to the speech, after which much of the anger expressed in street protests across the Muslim world appeared to subside.

However, in a sign that much diplomatic ground remained to be covered, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called for a ban on the "defamation of Islam" in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York.

"We also need to bridge, through dialogue and understanding, the growing divide between the Islamic and Western worlds," Musharraf told the 192-member assembly.

"It is imperative to end racial and religious discrimination against Muslims and to prohibit the defamation of Islam."

Referring indirectly to the pope, he said: "It is most disappointing to see personalities of high standing oblivious of Muslim sensitivities at these critical moments."

The Vatican wants to convene a meeting with envoys from Muslim countries in Rome as soon as the furore has calmed, possibly by the end of this month, the Corriere della Sera reported Wednesday. The Holy See has already dispatched its own ambassadors to explain the pope's speech in depth.

In a welcome sign of subsiding anger, Italian news agency ANSA reported that Morocco's ambassador to the Holy See is to resume his functions in Rome on Thursday.

Rabat recalled Ambassador Ali Achour on Saturday for consultations at the height of the furore over Benedict's "offensive remarks".

Support came from an unexpected quarter when Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist, expressed his "full understanding and support" for the pope.

Zapatero's wide-ranging attempts to bring social reform to Spain have dismayed the still influential Roman Catholic Church.