Pope to visit “Mary’s House” in Turkey

ANKARA (Reuters) – Pope Benedict, pursuing a journey of fence-mending with Islam and Turkey, on Wednesday pays tribute to one of Christianity’s most revered sites before heading to Istanbul, city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

During the first day of his delicate trip to the largely Muslim but officially secular country on Tuesday, Benedict quickly set to work trying to soothe still simmering rows over his positions on Islam and Turkey’s future role in Europe.

“It started beautifully: the Pope told the world from Ankara that Islam was a religion of peace,” top daily Hurriyet said.

Benedict’s comments so far appeared to go a long way toward making up for a speech in Germany in September when he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was violent and irrational. The speech infuriated Muslims worldwide.

Fears of large protests were unfounded, with only two small and peaceful demonstrations in Ankara. About 3,000 police were out on patrol to keep order, with snipers on buildings and armored personnel vehicles stationed on main intersections.

Well-wishers were absent on the capital’s main streets, an indication of the lack of interest in Benedict’s visit in a country where many still view the Pope with suspicion.

Turkey’s top Muslim leader, Ali Bardakoglu, spoke out against growing Islamophobia and the idea that Islam encouraged violence.

Newspaper Sabah said his speech was like a lesson to the Pope, who had been accused of failing to understand Islam.

In his speech at the same event, Benedict said Christians and Muslims must continue an open dialogue because they believe in the same God and agree on the meaning and purpose of life.

Benedict also appeared to do an about-face from his previous opposition to Ankara’s bid to join the European Union.

“MARY’S HOUSE”

On Wednesday the Pope is due to fly west to the Aegean town of Ephesus, where legend says the mother of Jesus Christ lived out the last years of her life. The stone “Mary’s House” was found in the late 19th century by archaeologists who based their searches on writings of German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich.

The Pope will say mass at the small sanctuary, visited every year by tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims.

The Pope then goes to Istanbul, the modern name of the city once known as Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for more than 1,000 years until it was conquered by Muslim forces in 1453 and became the Ottoman seat.

There, he will spend the last two days of the trip as the guest of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday that in a private meeting at the airport, Benedict had told him he backed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

“A surprise from the Pope: Benedict, who had opposed Turkey’s EU membership, spoke differently in Ankara,” said left-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet said.

Asked to explain the Vatican‘s precise position, spokesman Father Lombardi said it could not take any political stand but “encourages and views positively Turkey’s path of dialogue, rapprochement and participation in Europe based on common values and principles.”

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