Pope's trip fraught with risk

4-day Turkish visit comes at delicate time in Vatican-Islamic relations

November 28, 2006|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,Chicago Tribune

ANKARA, Turkey -- His predecessor was famous for his peripatetic globetrotting, but Pope Benedict XVI is about to embark on a journey that is as risky as any undertaken by Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict is scheduled to land in the Turkish capital today, the first stop on a four-day visit to this overwhelmingly Muslim nation on Europe's doorstep.

Although the trip was scheduled months ago, it arrives at a particularly delicate moment in the Vatican's relations with the Islamic world - a moment so laden with political peril that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided only yesterday that he would greet the pope after planning to be out of town.

Blunt words about Islam and violence and the 79-year-old pontiff's strong views on Turkey's unsuitability for European Union membership are sure to guarantee him a chilly if not openly hostile reception.

On Sunday, more 20,000 protesters gathered in Istanbul to demonstrate against the papal visit. They chanted "No to the pope!" and carried posters that depicted the pontiff as a fork-tongued serpent.

A pulp thriller called Attack on the Pope has suddenly become a minor best-seller in Turkey's largest city. Mindful that it was a Turk who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul 25 years ago, the Turkish security services are deploying thousands of police on the streets of Istanbul and the Vatican announced that there would be no "popemobile" parades on this visit.

In September, during a lecture at University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria, Pope Benedict ignited a furious controversy when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said that most of the Prophet Muhammad's contributions to religion were "evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The pope's use of the quote was roundly condemned by leaders of Muslim nations, including Erdogan, who called the words "ugly and unfortunate." At least two Muslim clerics called for the pope's death.

As the controversy spread, a nun was murdered in Somalia, Christians were attacked in Iraq and churches were burned on the West Bank. Outside London's Westminster Cathedral, protesters carried signs that said "May Allah Curse the Pope."

In response, the pope issued an unprecedented apology but not a retraction.

Another touchy issue between the Vatican and the Turks is the pope's view, articulated while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that it would be a "mistake" to allow Turkey to join the European Union.

"Europe is a cultural and not a geographical continent," he said in a 2004 interview. "Turkey always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe."

Erdogan, who heads a moderate Islamist party, had planned to be out of town during the papal visit. But perhaps realizing that snubbing the pope would not do much for Turkey's EU ambitions, he changed his plans and will greet the pope at the Ankara airport before heading to a NATO summit in Latvia.

While Pope John Paul could draw large, friendly crowds even when people didn't particularly like what he had to tell them, Pope Benedict has not yet shown that he has that gift.

"There's a lot of concern about his coming. We don't know what to expect," said Binnaz Toprak, a political scientist at Bosphorus University in Istanbul.

After paying his respects at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and an ardent secularist, the pope will be formally welcomed by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose post is largely ceremonial. The pope will then meet Ali Bardakoglu, head of Turkey's religious affairs directorate, who emerged as one of the pontiff's sharpest critics after the Regensburg flap.

The pope is scheduled to give a speech at the ministry that presides over religious life in this country of 70 million Muslims and a shrinking Christian population of about 100,000.

"At this point, saying as little as possible is probably the most prudent thing," said the Rev. John Wauck, a professor at the Santa Croce Pontifical University in Rome.

Wauck said he expects a low-key visit.

"The Vatican is clearly not trying to play it up. I think they are happy for it to happen, and they will be happy for it to become part of the past," he said.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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