The drawing appears in Studi Cattolici, a monthly magazine with links to the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic group, Opus Dei. It shows the poets Virgil and Dante on the edge of a circle of flame looking down on Mohammed.
“Isn’t that man there, split in two from head to navel, Mohammed?” Dante asks Virgil.
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“Yes and he is cut in two because he has divided society,” Virgil replies. “While that woman there, with the burning coals, represents the politics of Italy towards Islam.”
Cesare Cavalleri, the editor of the magazine, said last night that he had not meant to cause offence. “If, contrary to my intentions and those of the author, anyone felt offended in his religious feelings, I freely ask him in a Christian manner for forgiveness.”
That was a marked change of tone from an earlier statement, when he said: “We must not fear freedom of opinion.” If the cartoon provoked an attack, it would only confirm “the idiotic positions” of Muslim extremists.
“This is not a cartoon against Mohammed. It is a cartoon which addresses the loss of the West’s identity.
“Why all the fuss over a cartoon which only represents that which has already been written centuries ago by Dante Alighieri?”
Dante placed Mohammed in Hell in Canto 28 of The Divine Comedy. His work inspired a painting by William Blake, depicting Mohammed with his entrails hanging out, and a fresco in Bologna Cathedral showing him being tortured by a devil.
The new drawing threatens to reignite the controversy over a series of cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September and reproduced in France in February.
A spokesman for the Union of Italian Muslim Communities called it “odious and racist”. He said: “The rage was just calmed and here, with an absurd and criminal logic, they go and stir things up.”
Opus Dei was quick to distance itself from the magazine. “Studi Catollici is not among our official publications,” a spokesman said.
The new controversy has emerged just as Danish and Muslim youths are taking part in a summit aimed at reconciling the two sides.
At the time of the Danish row, Roberto Calderoli, the Italian reforms minister, wore a T-shirt showing one of the Danish cartoons during a television interview. He was forced to resign.