Published November 28, 2006
ANKARA, Turkey – Pope Benedict XVI began his first visit to a Muslim country Tuesday with a message of dialogue and brotherhood between faiths, and Turkey's chief Islamic cleric said at a joint appearance that growing "Islamophobia" hurts all Muslims.
Benedict also said guarantees of religious freedom are essential for a just society and urged all religious leaders to "utterly refuse" to support any form of violence in the name of faith — carefully avoiding a direct reference to Islam, but citing the "disturbing" violence in the Middle East and raising worries of more bloodshed and terrorism around the world.
The pope's comments on religious freedom also risk bringing the Vatican into conflict with some Islamic nations that allow only Muslims to worship openly or impose restrictions on religious minorities. The views could be reinforced later during the four-day 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 for the tiny Greek Orthodox community in Turkey.
With only about 30,000 Roman Catholics in a nation of about 72 million Muslims, the trip lacks the pageantry of a usual papal pilgrimage. Because of fears for the pope's safety, only one open air event is planned during the four-day trip, and all other events are in heavily guarded buildings.
Security forces were posted on rooftops and roadways around the pope's route. Only a few Turks broke away from their daily routine to watch the papal motorcade.
But the Vatican has big goals for the trip — a closely watched journey full of symbolism that could offer hope of religious reconciliation or deepen what many say is a growing divide between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Seeking to ease anger over his perceived criticism of Islam, Benedict met with Ali Bardakoglu, chief of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directories.
"The so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world, and growing Islamophobia hurts all Muslims," Bardakoglu said at a joint appearance.
The comment appeared to be a reference to Benedict's remarks in a speech in September when he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor who characterized the Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman." Those remarks triggered a wave of anger in the Islamic world; on Sunday, more than 25,000 Turks showed up to an anti-Vatican protest in Istanbul, asking the pope to stay at home.
"Peace is the basis of all religions," Benedict told Bardakoglu.
The Vatican said the speech was an attempt to highlight the incompatibility of faith and violence, and Benedict later expressed regret for the violent Muslim backlash.
"All feel the same responsibility in this difficult moment in history; let's work together," Benedict said during his flight from Rome to Ankara, where more than 3,000 police and sharpshooters joined a security effort that surpassed even the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush two years ago.
"We know that the scope of this trip is dialogue and brotherhood and the commitment for understanding between cultures ... and for reconciliation," he said.
Later, in a meeting with diplomats, Benedict sharpened his tone.
He urged that all religious leaders "utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion." But he expressed worry that the risks of more conflicts and terrorism were growing in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Benedict said "recent developments in terrorism and in certain regional conflicts" highlight the need for strong and effective international efforts, including peacekeeping forces in violence-wracked places such as Lebanon.
But he noted that "disturbing" conflicts across the Middle East show "no sign of abating and weighs heavily on the whole of international life."
"I am thinking of the risk of peripheral conflicts multiplying and terrorist actions spreading," the pontiff added, but he did not cite specific locations or groups.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the pope at the airport and said the visit was "very meaningful." Erdogan's political party has Islamic roots, though the government is secular.
In his first official act, 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."
Police monitored the highway leading to Ankara from the airport, and snipers climbed atop buildings and hilltops.
It was Benedict's first visit to a Muslim country as pontiff. The original goal was to meet Bartholomew I, leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Benedict split in 1054 over differences in opinion on the power of the papacy, and the two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to reunite the churches.
Benedict leaves Ankara on Wednesday for Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last years, and will then go to Istanbul.
A closely watched event will be Benedict's visit on Thursday to Haghia Sophia, a 1,500-year-old building that was originally a Byzantine church and then turned into a mosque after the Muslim conquest of Istanbul — then known as Constantinople — in 1453. It is now a museum, and Turks would take offense at any religious gestures by the pontiff.