Wed, Nov 29, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Pope commences Turkey visit amid storm of criticism

AFP , ANKARA

Pope Benedict XVI began his first visit to a Muslim country yesterday, a four-day trip to Turkey where his controversial remarks in September linking Islam and violence remain fresh in memories.

His welcome will be slightly less chilly than expected, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a conservative with Islamist roots, agreeing to a brief airport meeting shortly after the pope arrives and just before Erdogan flies off to a NATO summit in Riga.

The Vatican welcomed the move warmly, saying it was a "much appreciated ... gesture of attention."

The government spokesman, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, said on Monday evening that he hoped the pontiff's visit would constitute a "turning point" in relations between Islam and Christianity.

The first leg of the pope's trip in the Turkish capital will be purely political.

Compulsory visit

He will make the compulsory visit to the hilltop mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic, for a wreath-laying ceremony before going to the Presidential Palace for an official welcome and a tete-a-tete with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

He then visits Ali Bardakoglu, the director of religious affairs, who had harsh words for the pope after his Sept. 12 remarks in Regensburg, Germany, equating Islam with violence.

Bardakoglu had then accused Benedict XVI of harboring "hatred in his heart" for Muslims and said in an interview yesterday that the visit, although "a step in the right direction," would not suffice to heal the hurt his remarks had made.

The pontiff heads for more familiar religious ground today, flying to Ephesus in western Turkey to say mass at the location where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days.

He the travels to Istanbul tonight to meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, for the first of a series of encounters the two men will have over the next two days.

Benedict XVI's stay in Istanbul has also been a source of controversy in nationalist and islamist circles, who accuse him of trying to forge an anti-Muslim alliance with the Greek Orthodox Church.

Furious

They are also furious at the pope's plan to tour Hagia Sophia, a 6th century Byzantine church converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, then transformed into a museum in 1935.

Islamists, who want Hagia Sophia to become a mosque again, say the pope's visit is an indication of Christian ambitions to reclaim the Istanbul landmark as a church.

With tensions running high, security measures being taken for the pontiff's visit are extraordinarily tight.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said over the weekend that the security measures would be even tighter than those taken for US President George W. Bush during a 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul.

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