- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2006

ISTANBUL — Pope Benedict XVI reached out to the Islamic world yesterday during a sensitive visit to Turkey, calling for “brotherhood” between faiths and urging religious leaders to “utterly refuse” to support violence in the name of their creeds.

On his first visit to a Muslim country, the pontiff struck a conciliatory note designed to avoid a repeat of the uproar that erupted after his last speech on Islam in September. That speech, which Muslims considered insulting, led the pope to make a rash of unprecedented apologies and explanations.

Speaking to diplomats in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Benedict expressed concern, however, at the growth of conflicts and terrorism in the Middle East. During a meeting with Turkey’s most senior Muslim cleric, the conservative German pope listened to a complaint about what was termed “rising Islamophobia” in the world.

Benedict said “recent developments in terrorism and in certain regional conflicts” highlight the need for international efforts, including peacekeeping forces in places such as Lebanon.

The “disturbing” conflicts across the Middle East show “no sign of abating and weighs heavily on the whole of international life,” he said. He urged “brotherhood” between faiths, saying Christians and Muslims must continue an open dialogue because they believe in the same God and agree on the meaning and purpose of life.

Security was extraordinarily tight for the four-day visit, with 3,000 police and sharpshooters deployed in Ankara, more than for President Bush’s visit two years ago.

As Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Benedict was unpopular in Turkey for his well-known opposition to the country being allowed to join the European Union. Some 20,000 people demonstrated in Istanbul against his visit on Sunday. Organizers had predicted half a million would show up.

Nevertheless, followers of the Gray Wolves far-right Turkish group occupied the historic Haghia Sophia monument last week in protest at the visit. Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunmen who shot and wounded Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square in 1981, was a member of the Gray Wolves. Agca received a hero’s welcome from supporters when he returned to Turkey from an Italian prison recently.

But in Istanbul and other cities, ordinary Turks and moderate Muslims, as well as the tiny Orthodox and Catholic Christian communities, welcomed the visit. The Turkish government hopes it will help accelerate Turkey’s EU membership, diplomatic sources said. Ankara’s application to Brussels has been stalled because of Turkey’s opposition to the Greek-majority government of Cyprus.

Benedict’s remarks bore no resemblance to his speech in September in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor arguing that Islam was violent and irrational.

Instead, he quoted Pope Gregory VII as saying in 1076 that the kindness a North African Muslim prince showed his Christian subjects was a result of the fact that “we believe in the same God, albeit in a different manner.”

“Christians and Muslims, following their respective religions, point to the truth of the sacred character and dignity of the person. This is the basis of our mutual respect.”

Muslim officials raised the issue of violence to say that Muslims condemned it unconditionally, adding that accusations that Islam was violent were hurtful to them.

Benedict also praised Turkey’s rich history.

“This noble land has also seen a remarkable flowering of Islamic civilization in the most diverse fields,” he said.

Benedict also said guarantees of religious freedom are essential for a just society. His comments could be reinforced later during the visit when the pope meets in Istanbul with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

The pope is expected to call for greater rights and protections for Christian minorities in the Muslim world, including the tiny Greek Orthodox community of some 2,500 in Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the pope at the foot of his airplane and described the visit as “very meaningful.” Benedict visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and wrote a message in a guest book calling Turkey “a meeting point of different religions and cultures and a bridge between Asia and Europe.”

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