Thu, Nov 30, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Pope tries to lose `anti-Turkey' tag

AFP , ANKARA

Pope Benedict XVI was to travel yesterday to historic Ephesus and Istanbul on the second day of a trip to Turkey that began on a conciliatory note following his controversial remarks on Islam.

The 79-year-old pontiff will visit the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, western Turkey, and celebrate mass at the location where the mother of Christ is believed to have spent her last years.

He then heads to Istanbul to meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, head of the Greek Orthodox Church -- initially the main purpose of the trip to Turkey -- in the latest display of rapprochement between the two estranged branches of Christianity.

Both men are committed to bringing the Catholic and Orthodox churches closer, but healing the centuries-old schism is not easy, officials from both sides said in Istanbul on Tuesday.

"It will not be easy, it will not be a short dialogue, it will not happen this week or next year," Monsignor Brian Farrell, a member of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, said.

"It will need a long period of reflection... but I do not doubt we are on a good track," he said.

In Ankara on Tuesday, both the pope and his Turkish hosts appeared anxious to lay to rest the controversy over the pontiff's September remarks linking Islam to violence as they traded conciliatory gestures.

The pope, in a striking reversal of opinion, said he backed Turkey's bid to join the EU.

"We want Turkey to be part of the EU," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quoted Benedict XVI as telling him.

The pontiff had been dubbed the "anti-Turkish pope" for saying, when still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, that EU membership for Ankara would be "a grave error against the tide of history".

And Erdogan took the unusual step of personally greeting the pope as he stepped off his plane onto a red carpet at Ankara's airport, defying protocol that normally would have a minister of state serve this function. He had initially refused to meet the pope, pleading scheduling conflicts.

Jitters over the pope's visit led to a security blanket even tighter than that laid out for US President George W. Bush when he visited during a 2004 NATO summit.

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