ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, denounced last week for boasting about the superiority of Western civilization, hailed Islam Tuesday as a great and tolerant religion.
At a meeting with envoys from Muslim nations, Berlusconi insisted his controversial comments had been misinterpreted and said Italy would continue to be a friend of Arabs and Muslims.
``The prime minister took the opportunity to recall his deep respect for Islam, a great religion, with more than 1 billion followers, which preaches tolerance, the respect of human rights (and) the peaceful cohabitation between peoples,'' his office said in a statement after Tuesday's lengthy talks.
The apparent attack on Islam provoked howls of fury from around the world, but Berlusconi has so far refused to bow to demands for a full apology, insisting instead that leftist foes had deliberately distorted his views.
As part of a charm offensive to allay Muslim anger, Berlusconi invited the ambassadors of several Muslim countries to talks at his official residence.
Officials said the prime minister presented the envoys with a transcript of his remarks at the news conference in Germany last week.
``First of all, I thank you for accepting my invitation. There was a situation where words were attributed to me that I never pronounced,'' Berlusconi was quoted as telling the ambassadors by the Italian news agency Ansa.
Italian television reported the premier also showed the delegation a video of his comments.
Berlusconi, who heads a center-right government and controls one of the largest media empires in Europe, said in Germany last week the West ``should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion.''
``This respect certainly does not exist in the Islamic countries,'' he added at the time.
Berlusconi said the West ``will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism,'' and suggested Islamic civilization was stuck in the distant past.
CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL
In the light of Washington's attempts to build an international coalition to fight terrorism after the attacks on the United States last month, Berlusconi's comments stunned leaders both in the West and among Muslim nations.
Berlusconi rejected all criticism, telling parliament Friday the affair was ``an artificial controversy'' based on nothing and ``fed by irresponsible comments from the opposition.''
He went on to say he was sorry that distortions of his comments had offended his ``Arab and Muslim friends.''
Opposition politicians have denounced Berlusconi as a national liability, and the Italian Communist Party has called on Europe to condemn his government.
Berlusconi and his Cabinet have promised the Americans their full support for any action Washington takes in its campaign against terrorism.
Italy has numerous U.S. and NATO (news - web sites) bases and has said it is ready to deploy troops and aircraft as part of any U.S.-led military response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Among those invited to meet him Tuesday were Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi envoy and dean of Arab ambassadors in Italy.