VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI, who has been harshly criticized by Muslims for remarks about Islam, said Thursday that true tolerance must be based on respect and the Catholic Church is not trying to forcibly instill its message.

“The church doesn’t impose. It doesn’t force anyone to accept the message of the Gospel,” Benedict said at a ceremony at his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo to receive the credentials from Germany’s new ambassador to the Holy See.

“For this reason, the encounter with others must be marked by tolerance and cultural openness,” the pope said. “True tolerance always presupposes respect for the other, for man, who was created by God, whose existence was wanted by God.”

Benedict has expressed deep regrets for offending Muslims by his remarks earlier this month in Germany. In a speech, the pope cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” particularly “his command to spread by the sword the faith.”

Benedict has said he respects Islam and insisted the remarks did not reflect his personal views. Earlier this week, he received Muslim ambassadors at the summer palace as part of his efforts to try to put to rest the protests over his remarks.

While he clearly was distressed that his words caused dismay and anger in the Muslim world, he has also used the flap as an occasion to renew the Vatican’s insistence that the Muslim world respect Christianity.

In his meeting Monday with the Muslim diplomats, he cited a statement made by Pope John Paul II during a visit in 1985 to Morocco in which he said “respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres,” particularly religious freedom.

This is a major issue for the Vatican in Saudi Arabia and other countries where non-Muslims cannot worship openly.

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