Pope Benedict XVI stirred worldwide outrage when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor calling Islam “evil and inhuman,” a faith that has been “spread by the sword.”

In apologizing, he claimed the quote was taken out of context and he was actually preaching against “lack of reason” and “violence.”

But religious leaders from the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the Muslim American Society and the World Conference of Religions for Peace convened a news conference in Washington Sept. 20 to condemn religious intolerance and to call for “solidarity” with Muslims.

They, too, spoke of the context of the Pope’s speech. David Robinson, Pax Christi executive director, said the Pope’s appeal for “reason” must begin with the clear acknowledgement that the militarized policies being pursued by the Bush administration in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran “are themselves unreasonable.”

“Violence is unreasonable,” Robinson added. “From the unreasonable violence of justified torture to the unreasonable violence of military occupation, we reject the use of violence to achieve political ends.”

Robinson directly linked the Pope’s incendiary words with President Bush’s war policies, promoted in a barrage of recent speeches portraying the occupation of Iraq as a defense of “civilization.” Smearing Islam as “evil and inhuman” gives aid and comfort to Bush’s drive to impose a permanent occupation of the Middle East, and his policies of torture and shredding of civil liberties and international law.

The Muslim American Society issued a statement debunking the deliberate distortion of Islamic beliefs. “Islam does not and never did sanction spreading the faith by the sword,” the group said, noting that the Koran states categorically, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

The statement continued, “It is unfortunate that these statements came at a time when Islam and Muslims are under vicious, undue attack by some public voices in the West that lay aside reason and dialogue for hatred and violence.”

The Bush administration’s rhetoric of endless war against Islamic extremists and terrorists, with an assist from the Pope, is a dangerous smokescreen to advance the imperial policies of this administration. It must be rejected.