Pope Defuses Tensions On Arrival in Muslim Turkey

ANKARA (Reuters)–Pope Benedict backed Ankara’s EU entry bid and said Islam was a religion of peace on Tuesday, according to Turkey’s prime minister, in a bid to soothe rows over his views in the mostly Muslim state. Benedict received a red carpet welcome on arrival in Turkey with Tayyip Erdogan greeting him at the steps of the plane — a break from protocol and a show of warmth from a leader who initially said he was too busy to meet the 79-year-old Pontiff. Benedict, who before his 2005 election as pope had opposed Turkey’s EU ambitions, made his commen’s during their talks, Erdogan said before leaving for a NATO summit in Riga. "He said we are not political but we wish for Turkey to join the EU," the prime minister told journalists. Erdogan, who began his career in Islamic politics, added: "The most important message the Pope gave was toward Islam, he reiterated his view of Islam as peaceful and affectionate." Benedict traveled to Turkey with two strikes against him, his well-known opposition to Turkish EU membership and the September speech in Germany that many Muslims said insulted Islam by using a quote that described the religion as violent and irrational. He has denied he sees that link but has not withdrawn his words. Security was heavy for Benedict’s first visit to the Muslim world, with sharpshooters on the roof of the arrivals building and troops guarding the airport. About 3,000 police have been posted in the Turkish capital to prevent any protests. But the mood was mostly quiet, with few protests and none of the crowds that greet the Pope in Christian countries. Most Turks are Muslims but the state is officially secular. "The scope of this visit is dialogue, brotherhood, a commitment to understanding between cultures, between religions, for reconciliation," the Pope, 79, told reporters on board his aircraft before leaving Rome for Turkey. Erdogan told the Pope as they sat down for their short talk: "We are pleased to see you. Your visit comes at a time of increased importance of dialogue between civilizations." More than 20,000 Muslim protesters rallied against the Pope’s trip on Sunday in Istanbul, chanting, "Pope don’t come." The Pope said his trip was aimed at improving relations both with Muslims and with Orthodox Christians. After arriving, Benedict went directly to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, and laid a wreath as muezzins in nearby mosques chanted Islam’s traditional call to prayer. After a courtesy call on President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, he met with Turkey’s top Muslim official. A meeting with the diplomatic corps was due later on Tuesday. Security was tight at the airport and in Ankara, where about 3,000 police are on patrol to block expected protests by a small but vociferous minority of Islamists and hardline nationalists. Snipers were posted on the airport roof and at the religious affairs directorate. On Wednesday, the Pope will visit Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary is said to have died, and continue to Istanbul. The main focus of his four-day trip will be talks on Christian unity with Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

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