Pope urges Christian unity

November 30, 2006|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

EFES, Turkey -- Invoking the name of a martyred priest, Pope Benedict XVI made a pointed plea yesterday on behalf of Turkey's beleaguered Christian minority and celebrated Mass in an ancient shrine revered as the last home of the Virgin Mary.

Pope Benedict ended his second day in Turkey with another gesture of religious unity: He joined the spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians for prayer and blessings in Istanbul, a city that served as a seat of medieval Christian power.

The day saw the pope shifting focus from reconciliation with Muslims to Christian solidarity.

The Vatican also responded yesterday to a statement from al-Qaida in Iraq denouncing what it called the "crusader campaign" of the pope in Turkey as an affront to Islam. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said such threats are precisely the reason that violence must be separated from religion, the core of the pope's message.

Security was tight for Pope Benedict's first visit to a Muslim country. In Istanbul, miles of city streets were closed to protect his convoy, with police in riot gear posted along the route.

The pope had intended his pilgrimage to Turkey to highlight Christian unity and the bridging of the 1,000-year rift between Roman and Orthodox Catholics, who do not recognize the authority of the pope. But comments he made in September critical of Islam enraged much of the Muslim world and forced him to change the agenda, using this visit to reach out to Muslims and attempt to repair the damage.

Pope Benedict softened his opposition to Turkey's attempt to join the European Union, among other gestures. But the EU bid suffered a separate setback yesterday when the European Commission recommended that negotiations with Turkey be partially suspended because of continued dispute over the country's dealings with EU member Cyprus.

Turkey has refused an EU demand to open its ports to Cyprus until the European bloc makes good on a promise to end the economic isolation of the Turkish- occupied part of the divided island nation.

After a day spent attempting to promote reconciliation with Turkey's large Muslim majority, the pope turned yesterday to "the little flock of Christ" living in the midst "of a great nation." He went to the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, known in Turkish as Efes, and to the squat stone house where some Christians believe Mary lived out her final days. Parts of the foundation date to the 1st century, and legend has it that John the Apostle brought her here from Jerusalem after Jesus' crucifixion.

Mary is revered by Muslims as well as Christians; the Quran mentions the mother of Jesus numerous times, and the shrine here, at the end of winding forest road, attracts pilgrims from both faiths. Pope Benedict stressed that common bond yesterday.

Standing on a stone altar festooned with white and yellow carnations, a few yards from Mary's purported house and enveloped in towering pines, Pope Benedict led Mass for several hundred Christians and others who went through a battery of metal detectors and security posts. It might have been one of the smallest public audiences on a papal trip. There were Turkish Christians but also many who had arrived from Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe.

It was an unusually intimate celebration. No one in attendance was farther than a few dozen yards from the pope, close enough to see his eyes.

Pope Benedict offered his "personal love and spiritual closeness" and "a word of encouragement" to Christians in Turkey, "a small minority which faces many challenges and difficulties daily."

"Let us sing joyfully, even when we are tested by difficulties and dangers, as we have learned from the fine witness given by the Roman priest Don Andrea Santoro, whom I am pleased to recall in this celebration," the pope said.

Santoro was shot to death in February as he knelt in prayer at his church in the Turkish city of Trabzon, on the Black Sea. He was attacked amid the furor over Dutch cartoons that satirized the Prophet Muhammad.

Aishe Urturk, a 70-year-old Muslim, pushed her way to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of the pope. "I love all the Christians," she said.

Several in the audience gave the pope high marks for his efforts to soothe Muslim anger.

"He prayed here for peace and happiness for all mankind," said Konstantinos Cedolini, 39, a Turkish businessman and Catholic. "He never mentioned a single word against Turkey. His speech was proof of his respect to all the Muslim world."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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