Languages
Page last updated at 01:10 GMT, Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Preaching to the unconverted

Pope Benedict XVI has begun his visit to Turkey with a call for dialogue between the world's great religions. The BBC's correspondent in Turkey, Sarah Rainsford, reports on the Pope's first day in the Muslim world.

Ceremonial soldiers in white helmets marched into place beside a red carpet at Ankara airport as Pope Benedict's plane arrived from Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI and Turkey's religious chief Ali Bardakoglu
The Pope has said he wants to reach out to the Muslim world

Moments later, the Pope emerged and made his way down the steps for the start of his first visit to a mainly Muslim country.

In a last-minute change to the schedule, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was waiting on the tarmac to meet the pontiff in person. The two men shared a warm handshake, and smiles.

But this was a meeting that nearly did not happen.

The prime minister, whose party has its roots in political Islam, had been accused of snubbing the Pope by insisting until the last minute that he was otherwise engaged at the Nato summit in Latvia.

In the event the paths of the two men crossed at the airport, where they held a brief meeting that was clearly aimed at defusing tensions.

There is still widespread anger in Turkey at the Pope's comments in September, when he linked Islam to violence. Today though, all the talk was of friendship and peace.

"I wanted to come to Turkey, which is a bridge between religions," Pope Benedict told his host. "I believe it's my duty to establish friendly ties and encourage peace."

"As a culture of violence expands around the world - as the world is divided into different camps - we need understanding between cultures more than ever," Mr Erdogan told a group of journalists a few moments later as the Pope sped away to his next appointment in his armoured motorcade.

"So I find it all the more important that the Pope is visiting our country now, a country which is 95% Muslim, secular and democratic."

Public sceptical

There was more ceremonial display at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general who founded the Turkish republic as a secular state and turned its sights to the West.

The Pope paused for a moment, to lay a wreath of red and white flowers at Ataturk's tomb.

There had been street protests ahead of this visit by Benedict XVI, with some demanding a personal apology from the Pope for his comments about Islam, accusing him of ignorance and insult.

I don't think many Turks who know about Benedict XVI consider him yet as a friend of Turkey
Nazlan Ertan
Turkish journalist

Security for the visit was tight. More police were deployed in the capital than for the visit of President Bush.

But today only a tiny handful of protesters gathered.

The Pope is clearly trying to mend fences, but not everyone was persuaded.

"He was clearly full of enmity for Turks when he gave that lecture," a protester named Nilufer said.

"Maybe he's only saying these positive things now because he's here in Turkey? Maybe he's afraid of the reaction otherwise. But I don't find him at all convincing."

"I don't think many Turks who know about Benedict XVI consider him yet as a friend of Turkey," explains Nazlan Ertan, a journalist in Ankara.

"That's because the present Pope, when he was a cardinal, said Turkey had no place in a Christian Europe. That came as a great insult."

Call for dialogue

But on that front Prime Minister Erdogan has revealed what appears to be a complete about-face.

He claimed the Pope told him he does now want to see Turkey as part of the EU.

Pope Benedict XVI in Turkey
The Pope is an unfamiliar figure to many in Turkey

By evening the focus was back firmly on religion, as the Pope met one of his most vocal critics, the head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate.

In September Ali Bardakoglu accused the Pope of harbouring hatred for Islam.

Now, hosting the head of the Roman Catholic Church in his office, Mr Bardakoglu saluted him as an esteemed religious leader.

But in a statement from the podium he did hint at the Pope's comments about Islam, albeit indirectly.

Mr Bardakoglu spoke of a rise of Islamophobia in the world, and referred to those who link Islam with violence.

"I would like to announce that each member of Islam - a religion of peace - regrets such accusations which are not based on any scientific fact," he said.

"We men of religion should not be slaves of such prejudices."

From the Pope himself, conciliatory messages flowed. He announced that dialogue between faiths cannot be reduced to what he called "an optional extra".

"The best way forward is for authentic dialogue based on truth and inspired by the true wish to know one another better, respecting our differences and recognising what we have in common."

So the tone for this difficult visit has been set. There is no sign of any apology from the Pope, but there is a clear effort to calm tensions and begin to mend relations.

So far, most Turks seem to be accepting that.

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific