VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican rejected on Thursday accusations by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad was part of a "new crusade" involving Pope Benedict.
"These accusations are totally unfounded," chief Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said 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 are examining the bin Laden message and its impact on the Pope. The Vatican said the Pontiff's heavy schedule of Easter celebrations this weekend would not be changed.
The Saudi-born militant leader said Europe would be punished for the cartoons, which were first published by a Danish paper in September 2005. The images ignited bloody unrest among Muslims when 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 fresh protests by Muslims.
"Your publications of these drawings -- part of a new crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican has a significant role -- is a confirmation from you that the war continues," said bin Laden, addressing "those who are wise at the European Union".
U.S. officials said the CIA was confident the voice was that of the fugitive leader of al Qaeda, blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Lombardi said: "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."
VATICAN CONDEMNED CARTOONS
The Pope had been quick to condemn the Danish cartoons, Lombardi said, and launched a wider criticism of depictions of religious figures that offend members of different faiths.
Lombardi said Pope Benedict recently launched a permanent official dialogue with Muslim leaders. Last month the Vatican's top official for relations with Islam, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, condemned the cartoons.
Al Qaeda has criticised the Pope before. Many Muslims were offended by a speech he made in 2006 which they believed depicted Islam as a violent faith.
Responding to the bin Laden statement, a spokeswoman for the EU presidency told Reuters: "The European Union and its member states apply the principle of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, these are parts of our values and traditions.
"The EU and its member states respect Islam."
Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Karel De Gucht told Reuters Television he was concerned by the Bin Laden statement.
"It's a statement which is worrying and the substance disturbs me...it's worrying from a security point of view as we attach particular importance to the security of the European institutions on our territory."
The Danish Security and Intelligence Service said there was "a heightened threat from militant extremists abroad against Denmark and Danes and Danish interests abroad", and that the bin Laden comments did not change that assessment.
The Dutch government has said it fears a Muslim backlash when a right-wing lawmaker releases a film critical of the Koran, which he says he will do online this month because cinemas refuse to show it.