Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Pope calls for religious exchange

Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The Pope said Turkey was a religious bridge

Pope Benedict XVI has called for an "authentic dialogue" between Christians and Muslims in a speech at Turkey's directorate of religious affairs.

He said the exchange must be "based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better".

The pontiff was speaking at the start of a four-day visit to Turkey - his first trip to a mainly Muslim country since acceding to the papacy.

The visit has been overshadowed by angry protests by Turkish Muslims.

Tens of thousands of people protested on the streets of Istanbul at the weekend, calling on the Pope to stay away or apologise for comments he made about Islam in a speech in September.

I want to reiterate the solidarity between the cultures. This is our duty.
Pope Benedict XVI

Speaking to an academic audience in Germany, the Pope quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterised Islam as a violent religion.

While the Pope insisted the remarks did not reflect his own views, the speech was widely reported and caused anger across the Islamic world.

Ali Bardakoglu, the head of Turkey's directorate general for religious affairs, which controls Turkish imams, referred to the controversial speech at the meeting with Pope Benedict.

"Such accusations and attempts can only serve to encourage those who perform wrong-doing on behalf of religion by way of exploitation," he said in a speech.

EU issue

The Pope's visit to Turkey began with a 20-minute meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who greeted him at Ankara airport, despite earlier claims Mr Erdogan would not have time.

Such accusations and attempts can only serve to encourage those who perform wrong-doing on behalf of religion by way of exploitation
Ali Bardakoglu, head of Turkey's directorate general for religious affairs,

During the meeting, the pontiff gave Turkey support for its bid to enter the European Union, Mr Erdogan said.

Correspondents say that with membership negotiations on a knife-edge, there is extreme sensitivity about the attitude of the Christian West towards Turkey - and the Pope's visit may be a focus for those concerns.

The Pope told the prime minister he wanted to visit Turkey because it was a bridge between religions and cultures.

"I want to reiterate the solidarity between the cultures," he said. "This is our duty."

While in Turkey, Benedict will become only the second pontiff to visit a mosque, and will also meet Islamic and Jewish leaders as well as the heads of Turkey's Christian communities.

Mausoleum visit

Security is extremely tight for the visit, with 15,000 police on guard, snipers in place and a decoy motorcade being used for the duration of the trip.

Turkey says security will be higher than for US President George W Bush's visit in 2004 - but officials insist the Pope will not be in danger.

28 Nov:
  • Meets PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Anakara
  • Visits mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern republic
  • Meets President Ahmet Necdet Sezer
  • 29 Nov:
  • Goes to Ephesus to celebrate mass at site where Virgin Mary believed to have died
  • Goes to Istanbul to meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, for first of series of encounters
  • 1 Dec: Visits Haghia Sophia (6th Century Byzantine church converted into mosque in 1453, then transformed into museum in 1935) and Blue Mosque

    The trip was arranged in part so the Pope could meet the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, in Istanbul.

    In Ankara, the Pope began his trip with a visit to the hilltop mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

    Flanked by an escort of ceremonial guards, he laid a wreath of red and white flowers.

    In 1981 a Turkish gunman, Ali Agca, wounded Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in a Rome shooting.

    Popes Paul VI and John Paul II visited Turkey in 1967 and 1979, respectively.

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