Pope conciliatory on first day of his visit to Turkey

Pontiff calls for Christian-Muslim dialogue, encourages nation's quest for EU membership

November 29, 2006|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANKARA, TURKEY -- Pope Benedict XVI set off on the most difficult journey of his papacy yesterday, lavishing his hosts in this predominantly Muslim country with friendly overtures and softening his long-standing opposition to Turkey's membership in the European Union.

Hoping to soothe anger over what many Turks consider an anti-Islamic bias, the pope called for brotherhood and healthy dialogue with Muslims, and he repeatedly sketched the common ground shared by Islam and Christianity.

"The best way forward is through dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better," the pope said, "strengthening the bonds of affection between us in our common wish to live together in harmony, peace and mutual trust."

The pope did not back away, however, from the message central to his world view. Addressing the Ankara-based diplomatic corps, he denounced violence that is cloaked in religious fervor and made a plea for broader religious freedom, especially for minority Christian communities.

Security for the pope's first trip to a Muslim country was especially tight. Everywhere he went in the Turkish capital as he began his four-day visit, snipers were posted on rooftops and helicopters hovered overhead.

At the airport where the pope's plane landed, one row of military commandos ringed the tarmac and a second surrounded the plane.

There were no demonstrations like the one Sunday, when thousands of people demanded that the pope stay away from Turkey.

The welcoming ceremony at Ankara's airport was low-key. There were no marching bands, no singing children and no national anthems. On the route into town, there no waving crowds. The only onlookers seemed to be people waiting for the highway to reopen.

Pope Benedict was greeted at the airport by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was about to leave for the NATO summit in Latvia and until the last minute had said he did not have time to receive the pope.

After the two leaders chatted in private inside a terminal building and exchanged gifts, Erdogan emerged to announce that the pope had indicated that he supported Turkey's decades-long bid to join the EU.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, later issued a statement clarifying that the Holy See has no say in the EU's membership but "views positively" the pursuit by Turkey.

That marked a reversal for the pope, who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opposed Turkey's inclusion, saying it was a Muslim nation "in permanent contrast" with a majority Christian continent.

The shift on the EU is significant because the 25-nation EU is scheduled to decide next month whether to continue talks with Turkey, which has fallen behind in key political and economic reforms that it is obliged to undertake.

Encouragement on the EU was one of many conciliatory gestures the pope made on the first day of his visit.

In September, Pope Benedict enraged much of the Muslim world when, in a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, he linked Islam to violence and quoted a Byzantine emperor who regarded the religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhumane."

Striking a much more diplomatic pose yesterday, the pope praised Turkey as a "bridge between East and West, between Asia and Europe, a crossroads of cultures and religions."

Aboard his flight to Turkey, he called his visit a mission to promote dialogue and the search for understanding and reconciliation "in this difficult moment in history."

Pope Benedict's first official act in Ankara was to lay a carnation wreath at the stark, stone mausoleum dedicated to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk, picking up the pieces of the defeated Ottoman Empire, instituted a rigid form of secularism that forbade public displays of faith. Human rights advocates say those strictures are still used to hem in Christian minorities. Erdogan's moderate Islamic government has sought, gingerly, to loosen some of the restrictions.

Pope Benedict might be an ally of Erdogan in that struggle. Though the pope praised Turkey's adoption of a "modern secular regime," he cautioned in his comments to reporters that an exaggerated, sterile secularism, as often practiced in the West, is "a dead-end street."

The pope's longest public appearance yesterday was on a stage that he shared with one of his strongest critics, Ali Bardakoglu, head of Turkey's religious affairs directorate. Bardakoglu oversees all mosques and imams in the country, and he was one of the first and loudest to criticize the pope's Regensburg speech.

Wearing a white ceremonial headdress and white robes, Bardakoglu delivered a polite but firm statement to Pope Benedict, who sat patiently to one side during their encounter in the directorate headquarters.

Bardakoglu recalled the history of Anatolia - the land known as Asia Minor, which forms most of eastern Turkey today - as a "harbor and cradle" of major religions and cultures.

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