The world’s highest Sunni Muslim authority has demanded an official apology from the pope for the medieval Christian crusades.

Sheikh Fawzi Zafzaf, president of the Interfaith Dialogue Committee of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, said his panel sent the request to the Vatican in February, the Morocco Times reported.

The demand arose from Pope John Paul II’s apologies to the Jewish people and his visits to Syria and Egypt a few years ago, Zafzaf said.

Al-Azhar is only asking for a similar treatment, he stated.

The Morocco paper said the Vatican’s ambassador to Egypt has declined to comment, saying Al-Azhar’s request is being considered by the Holy See.

While many Christians have expressed remorse for the crusades, some scholars insist the common characterization of zealous imperialists attacking peaceful Muslims is wrong.

Thomas F. Madden, author of “A Concise History of the Crusades,” contends the Crusades “were in every way a defensive war.”

“They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world,” he wrote in a National Review column. “While the Arabs were busy in the seventh through the tenth centuries winning an opulent and sophisticated empire, Europe was defending itself against outside invaders and then digging out from the mess they left behind. Only in the eleventh century were Europeans able to take much notice of the East. ”

Madden said the event that led to the crusades was the Turkish conquest of most of Christian Asia Minor, modern Turkey.

“The Christian emperor in Constantinople, faced with the loss of half of his empire, appealed for help to the rude but energetic Europeans. He got it. More than he wanted, in fact,” wrote Madden, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University.

Over the past several years, pronouncements from Al-Azhar have sparked controversy.

In 2003, Al-Azhar’s grand sheikh, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, stated suicide bombers are considered “martyrs” under Islamic law.

In December 2002, the Islamic Ruling Committee in Al-Azhar declared the acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a religious obligation for Islamic states.

A member of panel, Sheikh Ala A-Shanawi, said, “The Islamic nation has to recognize the enemy, and to prepare itself accordingly.”

Answering a question he received, A-Shanawi wrote, “Allah’s messenger [Muhammad] would have prepared himself with all the resources possible in order to deal with the enemy. Therefore, if the Islamic nation is not equipped with the desired weaponry needed, it will be forced to suffer the consequences, and will be blamed for negligence.”

The sheikh continued, “All Islamic nations are required to seize nuclear weaponry, giving the nation the utmost respect. We see how far behind our nation is as a result of not being prepared as well as it should be, while the enemy has equipped itself with the best weaponry there is, which it will use to harm and destroy Muslims.”

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