VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican rejected on Thursday new accusations by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the publication of cartoons mocking Islam's Prophet Mohammad was part of a "new crusade" involving Pope Benedict.
"These accusations are totally unfounded," the chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told Reuters, in response to an audio recording by bin Laden which was posted on the Internet to coincide with the birthday of the founder of Islam.
Italian security officials were examining the new bin Laden message and its impact on the Pope, who is heading into busy Easter weekend celebrations.
"Obviously we can't ignore it but at this moment that doesn't mean the threat is being taken seriously," said an Italian security source, though other sources told local news agency Ansa it was being seen as serious.
The Saudi-born militant leader said Europe would be punished for the cartoons, which were first published by a Danish paper in September 2005 and unleashed a bloody reaction after other newspapers around the world reprinted them the following year.
Last month several Danish newspapers republished one of the cartoons in solidarity with the cartoonist after three men were arrested on suspicion of plans to kill him. This sparked a fresh outburst of protest by Muslims.
"Your publications of these drawings - part of a new crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican had a significant role - is a confirmation from you that the war continues," said bin Laden, addressing "those who are wise at the European Union".
Lombardi said bin Laden's accusations were not surprising.
"It is natural to think that he would lump the Vatican and the Pope together with all his perceived enemies. But this is not correct," he said.
He recalled that the Pope himself had been quick to condemn the Danish cartoons and launched a wider criticism of depictions of religious figures that offend members of different faiths.
Just last month the Vatican's top official for relations with Islam, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, jointly condemned the cartoons along with an official at al-Azhar University, Egypt's major centre of Sunni Islamic learning.
Lombardi pointed out that Pope Benedict also recently set up a permanent official dialogue with Muslim leaders.
Al Qaeda often criticizes the Pope. Many Muslims were offended by a 2006 speech he made which they perceived as depicting Islam as a violent faith.
Its second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri said in December Benedict had "insulted Islam and Muslims" and criticized Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for meeting him.
European countries singled out by al Qaeda in the past include Britain, Spain, Italy and Denmark. The new message is likely to cause particular concern to Denmark.
The European Union refused to comment to the latest provocation by bin Laden. A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: "We have seen messages of bin Laden on other occasions, our response is not to comment them."
The Dutch government has said it fears the same kind of backlash as over the cartoons when a right-wing lawmaker releases a film critical of the Koran, which he says he will do this month online after cinemas refused to show it.
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