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Turkey: Young People Comment On Pope’s Historic Visit

By Elif Yildiz Arli and Jeffrey Donovan The pope will arrive in Istanbul on November 28 (epa) ISTANBUL, November 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Turks have already rallied to protest the visit of Pope Benedict XVI -- even before his arrival tomorrow.

But not everyone’s against him.

Ozlem Karci, a student at Istanbul University, says Benedict might just be an important messenger of peace.

"We don’t hear much good news about him, and we don’t have good feelings about him," one student told RFE/RL.

“I think the pope needn’t feel anxious about his trip to Turkey, which is a mostly Muslim country," Karci says. "On the contrary, in this land that has been the cradle of many religions, he could deliver a message of peace. And for the sake of the whole world, that would probably be the best thing he could do.”

Tense Times For The Western And Muslim Worlds

Benedict made remarks on September 12 that sparked a firestorm of protest across the Muslim world. In a speech in Germany about the need for Western society to return to its roots of placing equal value upon its twin heritages of Christian theology and Greek rationalism, the pope quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor as saying that Islam had only brought “evil and inhuman things.”

But Maral Gunes is willing to give the pope a chance. After all, says the student from a town in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, these are tense times between the Western and Muslim worlds.

“I think this is important for both the Christian and Muslim worlds," Gunes says. "At the moment, the pope can’t really visit any other mainly Muslim country. [Muslim] countries other than Turkey aren’t ready for a papal visit, and so this is probably a success for Turkey. But, on the other hand, the pope is sort of walking a tightrope here. Sometimes, the pope’s tongue slips when he talks about Muslims, who are very sensitive about that and get insulted every day. I don’t know if either are ready for this meeting, and we will see what happens when he comes.”

Still, it’s not just the Muslim issue that has some Turks upset.

An Eastern Vatican?

Some Turks fear the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, could one day form a sort of Vatican in Istanbul -- a state within a state.

A banner in Istanbul in October says the pope is not welcome in Turkey (epa)

Nationalists fear such a development would lead to further calls for independence among other minorities, such as the Kurds, and so they will be analyzing the pope’s words for anything that looks like special support for the patriarch.

Cagri Goksel, a chemical-engineering student at Istanbul Technical University, touched on these concerns.

“I think the pope’s visit has a political purpose: to confer authority on the patriarch of Fener [Constantinople] in the Ayasofya," Goksel says. "Wanting a chosen group of journalists to be there makes this look like they are acting like a state within a state. I think this is a political act. The pope's recent comments [about Islam and violence], and his not withdrawing them, and then -- on top of that -- insisting on coming to Turkey, makes me suspect there are bad intentions behind this.”

Law student Afsin Ala agrees.

“I guess the thing we are curious about with this trip at the end of the November, will be whether he says something about this or whether he will support it," Ala says. "Because the focus of the reactions in Turkey against the pope is this -- the pope’s attitude toward the ecumenical claims of the patriarch of Fener.”

Turkey And The European Union

Still another sore spot is Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Benedict, before he became pope, voiced opposition to that effort in a 2003 interview with the French daily “Le Monde.”

Citizens in Prague, the Czech Republic, demonstrate in June against Turkish entry into the EU (RFE/RL)

Young Turks like Emre Telci, from the Black Sea region, haven’t forgotten, even if they feel that the pope’s influence over Europe’s political leaders may be limited.

"Because even if the pope has some economic and religious powers, Turkey’s integration with the EU is entirely dependent on the thoughts of the EU leaders -- it’s their business," Telci says. "The Vatican could only have very, very, very little influence on this."

But perhaps it comes down to honor, says Yusuf Sidar Sahin, another Istanbul university student.

"We don’t hear much good news about him, and we don’t have good feelings about him," Sahin says. "But it could be our subconscious thing, or perhaps we’re conditioned that way. His previous statements offended us. How can I say it? We will show him our hospitality but after his statements and incoherent behavior, it isn’t like we weren’t offended -- not because we are religious, but because of our honor."