In an audience aimed at defusing anger over his recent speech, which was widely perceived to have depicted Islam as violent, Pope Benedict told Muslim envoys on Monday that Christian and Muslim believers must reject all forms of violence.
   

He expressed his "esteem and profound respect" for members of the Islamic faith. 

 

Diplomatic envoys from 22 Muslim countries plus the leaders of Italy's own Muslim community met the pontiff at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo.

 

Federico Lombardi, Benedict's spokesman, said the meeting 

was "certainly a sign that dialogue is returning to normal after moments of ... misunderstanding."

 

The meeting was to address widespread Muslim anger at a speech the pope made on September 12, when he quoted the words of a Byzantine emperor who said some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad were "evil and inhuman", particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith".

 

Out of context

 

Benedict said that his remarks were taken out of context and that he regretted that Muslims were offended.

 

Since the speech, many Muslim countries and religious figures have called on the pontiff to apologise for linking Islam and violence.

 

The pope expressed 'profound
respect' for followers of Islam

In Somalia on September 17, Rosa Sgorbati, a Catholic nun, was killed at a children's hospital by an armed man in an incident believed to be linked to the pope's speech.

 

Aljazeera's correspondent in the Palestinian territories reported over the past week that churches in the West Bank and Gaza city were hit by firebombs and gunfire.

 

Early on Saturday, Palestinian police guarding a West Bank church exchanged fire with assailants and chased them away, witnesses said.

 

In Tulkarem, a disused church was broken into and set on fire, while in Tubas rocks and petrol bombs were thrown at another church.

 

Nablus incident

 

Palestinian security services said that in Nablus on the same day, protesters threw petrol bombs at four churches of different denominations, while the oldest church in Gaza city came under gunfire.

In Bethlehem, the Palestinian police said they had stepped up security around the city's churches.

Palestinians in Gaza protesting
against the pope's remarks 

"We are taking security precautions to protect the churches in Bethlehem, especially the Church of Nativity, against any aggression in reaction to the pope's statements," said Ahmad Al-Haddar, head of the police and security in the town.

He said that "extra plain-clothes policemen have been posted around all churches" in the city.

In the northern West Bank city of Jenin, armed members of Islamic Jihad guarded a Catholic church in the city, witnesses and the group said.

Ismail Haniya, the head of the Hamas-led government, and many other senior Palestinian officials have denounced the attacks.