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Turkey: Pope's Visit A Milestone For Christians And Muslims

Protesters in Istanbul burned U.S. and Israeli flags on November 26 to protest the pope's visit (epa) ISTANBUL, November 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- He’s yet to arrive, but Turks are already protesting. Pope Benedict XVI on November 28 kicks off a controversial, four-day visit to Turkey, his first trip to a mostly Muslim country.

On November 26, tens of thousands of Turks rallied in Istanbul against the visit, which comes less than two months after Benedict sparked a firestorm of anger across the Muslim world for remarks seen as critical of Islam.

Muslim anger, Christian divisions -- Pope Benedict faces major challenges in Turkey and the first challenge may well be his own security.

'You Won't Be Safe Here'

In September, after making his controversial remarks on Islam, the Bavarian-born pope received a grim warning. Ali Agca, the Turk who shot, but failed to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, urged Benedict not to proceed with his trip to Turkey.

In 2003, before becoming pope, Benedict voiced opposition to Turkey joining the European Union.

"You won’t be safe here," Agca told Turkish media.

While it appears unlikely Agca had any specific knowledge of a plot, security officials will be taking no chances during the pope's four-day trip, says Turkish political analyst Zeyno Baran.

“There are going to be provocations and there are some people who would like to attack and do whatever," Baran says. "But the question is, will they succeed? I mean, since we had Agca try and not succeed before. It’s a source of concern; the government is doing everything it can to make sure there won’t be any major incident. But there’s always a risk.”

Tens of thousands of protesters have already rallied in Istanbul against him and are set to continuing to protests during the 80-year-old Benedict's stay.

Meeting President, Prime Minister

The rally in Istanbul on November 26 was organized by a pro-Islamic political party, Felicity, whose leaders have said they are offended by Benedict's comments linking violence and Islam.

Pope Benedict (left) meeting an unidentified Muslim dignitary at his personal residence in September (epa)

The first stop on the pope’s schedule is a visit to Ankara on November 28 to the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish republic. The pope will then meet with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

The pope is controversial not just among conservative Muslims here, but also within the Turkish secular establishment. That’s partly because in 2003, before becoming pope, he voiced opposition to Turkey joining the European Union.

In what was widely seen as a snub, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was originally not scheduled to meet with the pope. However, after heavy pressure from intellectuals, Erdogan’s office announced on November 27 that the prime minister will meet the pope in Ankara shortly after the pontiff's arrival.

Benedict’s most significant meeting on November 28 may be with Turkey’s top Islamic cleric, Religious Affairs Director Ali Bardakoglu.

Reconsidering The Regensburg Argument

Around the Muslim world, media such as satellite television channel Al-Jazeera are expected to give ample coverage to the pope’s trip. And they will be paying particular attention to the pope’s official address to Bardakoglu, says Vatican expert John Allen.

“The senior people at the Vatican understand that this is Benedict’s last best chance opportunity to sort of change his profile in the Muslim world," Allen says.

Demonstrators in Cairo protest in September against the pope's comments linking Islam and violence (epa)

The pope is likely to say the same things he said in Regensburg, Germany, on September 12. Only now, unlike then, he won’t quote a medieval Byzantine emperor saying that Islam only brought things that were “evil and inhuman.”

Instead, Allen says, he’s likely to restate his Regensburg case, but in a conciliatory way, one that underscores the interplay of faith and reason and Benedict’s idea, taken from the ancient Greek thinkers, that the two cannot be separated.

“The heart of the Regensburg argument is that reason and faith belong together, that reason without faith becomes skepticism and it becomes nihilism, which he said is the situation in the West in many ways," Allen explains. "And faith without reason becomes extremism, and it can lead to violence and things like that, which is characteristic of some currents in the Islamic world. And so he was really issuing a sort of double-barreled challenge: one to Muslims and the other to the West.”

Mary As Common Ground

On November 29, Benedict will fly to ancient city of Ephesus, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. There, he will hold a mass and visit the shrine to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, who is believed to have spent her latter years in the city.

Some analysts speculate that the pope may also use Mary as a bridge back to Muslims. The Koran mentions her positively several times, and Muslims, like Christians, believe she gave birth to Christ as a virgin.

On November 29, the pope arrives in Istanbul to meet with the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the symbolic spiritual leader of the Orthodox world.

It was in Constantinople, in 1054, that the eastern and western parts of Christendom split apart in the “Great Schism.”

After the Cold War, Polish-born Pope John Paul II helped break the ice between the two sides.

Now, under Benedict, relations are getting even warmer -- to the extent that there’s even talk of an emerging pact of Catholics and Orthodox to tackle common challenges.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Bishop Illarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s envoy in Vienna to European institutions, urged the creation of an alliance to combat moral relativism and secularism. The largest number of Orthodox believers is in Russia.

"As the guardians of Christian traditions and as churches which have a common position, in fact an identical position, on all fundamental moral questions of modern life, we should learn to act together," Alfeyev said. "And precisely for this purpose it seems to me essential to create such an alliance or a strategic union to successfully accomplish this mission."

On November 30, the pope and Bartholomew are expected to issue a joint declaration.

The Blue Mosque

He is also expected to visit the museum of Ayasofya, a stop on his visit that has already caused some to protest here. The sixth-century Ayasofya was originally built as a cathedral, but was converted into a mosque after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

Demonstrators protest on November 22 in Istanbul's Ayasofya against Benedict's planned visit there (epa)

Police this week detained 39 protesters holding an unauthorized protest inside the museum. The demonstrators argue that the pope’s visit to Ayasofya shows that Christians want to claim it back from Muslims.

In a visit apparently recommended by Turkish authorities as a conciliatory gesture, the pope is also expected to visit the famed Blue Mosque on November 30.

Then, he will hold a series of ecumenical meeting with other religious leaders.

He will pray at the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral and meet with Patriarch Mesrob II. He will also meet with the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan, the grand rabbi of Turkey, and members of Turkey’s small Catholic community.

After saying a Mass on December 1 at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, the pope will fly back to Rome.

Islam In A Pluralistic World

Islam In A Pluralistic World

A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)


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