Pope Benedict Begins Sensitive Visit to Turkey

Amid massive security, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey for a four-day visit aimed at mending religious fences with Orthodox Christians and the nation's majority Muslims. The pope was met at the airport by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Erdogan left Turkey to attend the NATO summit in Latvia.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pope Benedict today begins a four-day visit to Turkey, a visit he hopes will open a dialogue between Christians and Muslims. At the outset of his trip, the pope spoke of the need for reconciliation between religions and cultures. He's also hoping to mend the 1,000-year-old rift between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. This is the pope's first visit to a Muslim country, and the most difficult mission of his papacy. It follows, by two months, controversial comments he made about Islam.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Istanbul and she joins us now. And Sylvia, the pope has now had his first face-to-face meeting with Turkish leaders, and that includes religious leaders. What happened?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, Benedict was welcomed at the airport by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. They spoke for about 20 minutes and both expressed a desire to deepen dialogue and understanding. The most important encounter of the day was Benedict's meeting with Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, Ali Bardakcioglu - he was among the Pope's harshest critics over Benedict's remarks, last September, that many Muslims saw as suggesting that Islam is violent and irrational. In the text of his speech, in English, Benedict reiterated what he had said last year, in a meeting with Muslims in Germany, that the dialogue between Christians and Muslims is a vital necessity. He also spoke about one of the crucial issues of his visit, the problem of religious freedom in Turkey. He said freedom of religion is the necessary condition for the loyal contribution of all believers to the building up of a society.

In his remarks to the pope, Bardakcioglu said that inter-religious dialogue can develop only when there is mutual respect.

MONTAGNE: Now, I just said that it was this pope's most difficult mission, but it's actually being looked at as one of the most difficult Papal trips in modern times. What's at stake?

POGGIOLI: Well, there's - it comes at a very particular time. There's a certain geopolitical situation. There's Turkey's aspirations to enter the European Union. And, of course, there's the Pope's recent remarks on Islam. And now - so Benedict has been seen here, in the lead-up to this visit, as a modern crusader and the symbol of Fortress Europe rejecting Muslim Turkey.

He comes with a lot of very negative baggage. His comments on Turkey and Islam have angered both Turkish nationalists and Islamists. And we've seen some very loud peaceful protests, but loud demonstrations against the pope's visit.

He so - as spiritual leader of the Roman Catholics, he had hoped to come here on a purely pastoral mission aimed at Christian unity, but it's now become much more complicated. He has to grapple with the very tense relationship between the West and Islam, and so this theologically inclined pontiff now has to play world diplomat.

MONTAGNE: And the Vatican and the Turkish government have separate sets of expectations. What are they, from this visit?

POGGIOLI: Well, the Turks wanted to hear Pope Benedict say, clearly, that Islam is a religion of peace. They also want to hear him disavow remarks he made as a cardinal, two years ago, saying that Turkey should not become a member of the European Union because it's not a Christian nation.

Now today, Prime Minister Erdogan, after meeting the pope, said that Benedict told him he wants Turkey to join the European Union. We have not had confirmation from the Vatican on on this, yet. For his part, Benedict's position is that Muslim countries should show reciprocity. That is, allow non-Muslim minorities the same freedom Muslims have in non-Muslim countries. Many human rights groups and the European Union strongly criticize Turkey for its restrictions on religious freedom. Minority religions here have no legal status, they have tight restrictions on property ownership, priests are not allowed to wear clerical robes in public, and seminaries to train clergy are banned.

This is going to be the most delicate issue during the trip. If Benedict is too confrontational, he will risk alienating Turkish officials.

MONTAGNE: And as you said, the original purpose of this visit is a search for Christian unity. I gather the pope will pray together with the patriarch of the world's Orthodox Christians. How deep is the rift, is it healable?

POGGIOLI: Well, Christian unity is one of Benedict's prime objectives. He set it out clearly the day after he was elected pope. There's still many obstacles, the most important is the issue of the primacy of the pope, which the Orthodox do not recognize. But Benedict's election as pope was warmly welcomed by Orthodox leaders, who see in him a strong affinity for the older, more traditional orthodox liturgy, and they highly respect him for his theological scholarship. So there's a lot of expectations that this visit will lead to a new chapter in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Istanbul, covering Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey.

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