Pope Benedict XVI began a delicate mission to Turkey on Tuesday, trading conciliatory gestures with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as both sought to calm the storm unleashed when the pontiff appeared to link Islam to violence.
The pope, in a striking reversal of opinion, said he backed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
“We want Turkey to be part of the EU,” Erdogan quoted Benedict XVI as telling him.
He also called for “authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims” on the first day of his high-stakes visit, the first of his pontificate to a Muslim country.
“The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognising what we have in common,” he said in an address at the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
Erdogan himself made a conciliatory gesture by personally greeting the pope as he stepped off his Alitalia plane at Ankara’s Esenboga Airport, defying protocol that normally would have a minister of state serve this function.
The pope described his high-stakes visit — his first to a Muslim country since his election in April 2005 — as an opportunity for “reconciliation” between Christianity and Islam.
“The goal of this trip is dialogue, fraternity, a commitment to understanding and dialogue between cultures, to a meeting of cultures and religions in favour of reconciliation,” the pope told reporters on the flight from Rome.
The trip is a controversial one in Turkey, amid residual anger over the September comments that triggered widespread outrage in the Muslim world.
In addition, the pontiff, seen as a defender of Europe’s Christian identity, had already been dubbed the “anti-Turkish pope” for saying, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, that EU membership for Ankara would be “a grave error against the tide of history”.
Erdogan had initially refused to meet the pope, pleading prior commitments.
The two spoke briefly at the airport VIP lounge under heavy security before Erdogan headed for a Nato summit in Riga and Benedict XVI went on the first stop of his tour, a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Benedict signed a visitors’ book at the monument, writing: “On this land, meeting place and crossroads of different religions and cultures, junction of Asia and Europe, I am pleased to adopt the words of the founder of the Turkish republic as my own in expressing this wish: ‘peace at home, peace in the world.'”
Erdogan, addressing his Justice and Development Party’s group in Parliament earlier on Tuesday, said the pope’s visit would contribute to “the alliance of civilisations and global peace”.
He gave assurances that the pope would be well received and criticised Islamist and nationalist groups in Turkey opposed to the papal visit as “marginal, specific and narrow”.
The pope’s four-day visit is taking place under strict security, tighter than that laid out for United States President George Bush when he visited during a 2004 Nato summit, according to Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.
The pope’s stop in the Turkish capital will be purely political, secular officialdom greeting him as the Vatican head of state rather than spiritual leader of the world’s 1,1-billion Catholics.
Later on Tuesday the pope went to the Presidential Palace for an official welcome and a private meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
The 79-year-old pontiff then visits Ali Bardakoglu, the director of religious affairs and secular Turkey’s top religious official, who had harsh words for him after his September 12 remarks on Islam in Regensburg, Germany.
Bardakoglu had accused Benedict XVI of harbouring “hatred in his heart” for Muslims and said in an interview on Monday that the visit, although “a step in the right direction”, would not suffice to heal the hurt his comments had caused.
Tuesday’s Turkish press was largely hopeful that the pope would succeed in building bridges and that Turkey would put its best foot forward in its bid to join the EU.
The pontiff heads for more familiar religious ground on Wednesday, flying to Ephesus, western Turkey, to say mass at the location where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days.
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 Istanbul on Tuesday, the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate said it hoped the pope’s visit would help convince Ankara to enhance the rights of its followers, who are a tiny minority.
The church, seated in Istanbul since Byzantine times, and Bartholomew I are encountering “some difficulties, to say the least”, Archbishop Demetrios of America told a news conference. — AFP