Pope's fence-mending trip

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Turkey Tuesday. He faces a cool reception as he tries to improve Christian-Muslim ties.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It most likely isn't the welcome Pope Benedict XVI was expecting when his trip to Turkey was first planned. The pontiff's arrival Tuesday has been met not with open arms, but by angry demonstrators, an exodus of elected officials leaving the country for other engagements in order not to be seen with him, and a security detail even larger than that provided for George W. Bush's 2004 visit.

Even the original purpose of the trip – an opportunity to heal the 1,000-year-old schism between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church, whose spiritual leader resides in Istanbul – has changed.

Since offending Muslims in a September speech that linked Islam with violence, Pope Benedict's visit – his first to a Muslim country – is now being billed as a chance for him to heal another East-West divide, that between Christianity and Islam.

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But observers here say that the pope's image among Muslims and the political realities in Turkey will not only make that a difficult task but also turn his visit into an extremely delicate balancing act.

"Every step he takes is going to be watched very closely. There is a prejudice against him that he is against Islam, that he is against Turkey and that he is against Turkey joining the EU," says Rifat Bali, an Istanbul-based historian who writes about Turkey's minorities. "His trip has become very politically loaded."

The period leading up to the visit has been tense. On Sunday, some 25,000 turned out for a large nonviolent protest against the pope organized by the Islamist Saadet party. "You are the representative of evil," said Recai Kutan, Saadet's leader, referring to the pope. "We don't want to see you here unless you apologize."

While the pope expressed regret for the uproar caused by his September speech, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said that Islam lacks a tradition of rational thinking that would rein in violence, many Muslims have called for a fuller apology.

During his most recent Sunday address at the Vatican, the pope reached out to Turks, saying, "I want to send a cordial greeting to the dear Turkish people, rich in history and culture.... To this people and their leaders I express feelings of esteem and of sincere friendship." Vatican officials have also recently said that the papacy does not oppose Turkey's joining the EU, though as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope did not support it.

The Turkish government, meanwhile, has appeared a little unsure about how to deal with the pope's visit. The foreign minister will be out of the country. Turkey's religious affairs minister will also be absent, citing previous commitments in Germany. Originally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan had planned to be out of the country as well, but Monday he announced that he would meet the pope on his way to Latvia for a NATO summit.

On the other hand, Turkish officials, who were among the first to criticize the pope's September speech, have tried to soften their tone.

Ali Bardakoglu, head of a government agency that oversees the country's mosques and imams, and who initially accused the pope of having "hatred in his heart," said he welcomes the pope's visit.

"Whenever a religious leader visits other countries, it means that religious leader is ready to engage in dialogue. That's important. If we want to get a grip on the world's problems, we have to speak to each other," Mr. Bardakoglu, who will meet with the pope in Ankara, said in an interview with Germany's Spiegel magazine.

Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul-based commentator on Islamic affairs, agrees that the visit could bridge the Christian-Muslim divide. "If he gives positive message about Islam and established a good dialogue with the Muslim leaders he meets here, that would be a very good move toward mending the relations between the Muslim and Christian worlds," Mr. Akyol says.

What may ultimately become obscured during the visit is its original focus on the Orthodox patriarchate and the condition of Turkey's small Christian community. Some 3,000 Orthodox Christians today remain in Turkey with another 70,000 Armenians.

"I don't think he has any room now to talk about the situation of Christians in Turkey," says Bali.

Although guaranteed the same rights as Muslim citizens, Christians in Turkey have long complained about the legal hurdles they face. Working out of a small compound hemmed in by a working-class neighborhood, the Orthodox patriarchate is the frequent target of nationalist protests and even occasional grenade attacks. Over the decades, numerous Orthodox properties, including schools and cemeteries, have been confiscated by the state. The patriarchate's theological seminary was closed in 1971 and has yet to be reopened, leaving it unable to train its own clergy.

"Minority rights is the issue that we have had the least progress on over the last six or seven years. It's a common theme in all the [EU] reports," says Ioannis Grigoriadis, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Isik University. "Other difficult issues have been dealt with mostly successfully, while with the issue of non-Muslim minorities that has not been the case."

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