IMAGE: Turkish police
Burak Kara  /  Getty Images
Turkish riot police stand guard during a demonstration in front of the sixth century Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia on Monday in Istanbul, Turkey. Pope Benedict XVI is arriving on Tuesday and is expected to visit the monument during his first visit to a Muslim country as pontiff. 
By Producer
NBC News
updated 11/28/2006 11:32:58 AM ET 2006-11-28T16:32:58

Pope Benedict XVI embarks on the most controversial trip of his young papacy this week by going to Turkey, an almost completely Muslim country, where he arrives with the baggage of his own past statements that still anger and offend many of its people.

With a great deal of tension in the air and concerns for his safety — as well as the fear of repercussions against Turkey's small Catholic population — both the wisdom and the timing of the visit have been questioned. 

But with Germanic determination Benedict is marching resolutely into a potential lion’s den, armed with stated good intentions and positive messages but also carrying the liability of his penchant for using blunt language, a trait that has gotten him into trouble in the past.

Deep roots
There are deep roots to many of the elements that have some observers concerned about the trip.

Much of early Christianity was played out on Turkish soil. The Virgin Mary is believed to have lived out the rest of her life there after her son’s death, accompanied by the apostle John. Saint Paul was based for many years in Turkey, from which he wrote his many letters urging people to convert to Christianity, a major part of the New Testament. And it was the Emperor Constantine who would legitimize Christianity in the 4th century. Constantinople, to which he moved the seat of the Roman Empire, is the city we now call Istanbul.

For a thousand years, eastern Christianity (based in Constantinople) and western Christianity (based in Rome) were, in essence, one religion. However, cultural and power struggles would eventually separate the two ends into an official divorce, known as the Schism of 1054, resulting in the Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics of today. 

And that was the relatively peaceful part. Before and after the Schism, there were centuries of Muslim attacks later countered by the Christian crusades, ending in the permanent domination by Islam in the 15th century, resulting in the Muslim stronghold that it would remain to this day.

Finally, there was the decline of royal rulers and the arrival of strongman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who forged the modern nation of Turkey in 1922. Ataturk succeeded in part by creating a strictly secular government that imposed strict control over religion, a policy some observers believe eventually resulted in the revival of Islamic fundamentalism.

Because of all this, Benedict’s trip walks a historical minefield laced with the scar tissue of wounds that go back centuries, as well as an entire millennium.

Recent wounds
Despite the fact that the ostensible reason for the trip is to further dialogue with the Patriarch of Constantinople for Eastern Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, on the occasion of the feast of St. Andrew,  which is celebrated November 30th, the visit is overshadowed by Muslim sensitivities.

There are two recent “wounds” that fuel their anger at this trip, and they were both personally caused by Benedict himself.

The first happened six years ago when the pope was still a cardinal, and the senior theologian in the church in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In an interview with a French magazine, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said he was not in favor of Turkey’s admission to the European Union, because “(i)n the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe.”

This comment caused an uproar in Turkey and was perceived as very damaging to their efforts to join the EU, an effort that began 40 years ago.

The second is the pope’s quote that ignited the entire Muslim world in September. In a speech about reason and faith to an audience of academics at Regensburg University in Germany, where he once taught, Benedict chose to quote Manuel II Paleologus, a 14th century Byzantine emperor who reigned in Christian Constantinople before its fall to the Ottoman Turks.

"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached," Benedict quoted the Byzantine emperor as saying in his lengthy speech. The pope’s use of the quote set off a firestorm of violence and riots across the Muslim world and even the killing of a nun in Somalia.

Many Turks from all levels of society are still waiting for a “full apology,” not satisfied by the three follow-up attempts the pope made to express his regrets and disassociation from the quote’s content.

Benedict will undoubtedly attempt to make further repairs to the damage inflicted by that speech, but it’s entirely possible, because of the directness of his language, that he could actually make things worse instead of better.

Politically sensitive topic  
That’s something that the tiny population of 30,000 Catholics in Turkey (who already suffer social discrimination and political exclusion) can scarcely afford. While the pope’s security will be ensured by his personal Swiss Guard, Vatican security officials and a massive security effort imposed by the Turkish government, the few Christians and Catholics could be a much easier target for the Turkish nationalist factions that are most opposed to the visit.

The potential for trouble here is only underscored by the last-minute decision by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to welcome Benedict before leaving for the NATO summit in Latvia. Initially, the prime minister conveniently blamed the NATO meeting for his scheduled absence during the politically sensitive papal visit.

Clearly a sign of disrespect, since the leader of the country is traditionally the one to receive the pope on arrival, the last-minute reversal of course by Erdogan announced Monday is clearly meant as an overture of openness to Benedict’s visit.

Another spot on the pope’s high-wire act in Turkey will be his visit to the majestic Haghia Sophia. The doomed complex was the spiritual center of Christian Byzantium until the city —then known as Constantinople — fell to Muslim forces in 1453. Crosses and other Christian symbols were defaced, and it became one of the most renowned mosques of the expanding Ottoman Empire.

The building was transformed again in 1935 — this time into the Ayasofya museum during the secular reforms of Ataturk, who built modern Turkey from the Ottoman ruins. Religious services are prohibited, and Benedict's visit Thursday is considered by Turkish officials as only sightseeing.

But how Benedict pays his respects in the building will be closely watched. Any gesture perceived as worship could undermine the Vatican’s attempt to rebuild good will with Turkey and other Muslim nations.

Anticipation verging on trepidation
And as if there weren’t enough to fuel the fire already, a former player in modern papal history also lurks in the cultural background of this landscape.

Mehmet Ali Acga, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square on May 13,1981, sits in a Turkish prison, from which he periodically issues strident and dire warnings directed at the Vatican.

Acga may well have been the inspiration for a Turkish author who published a local bestseller a few months ago that describes the assassination of Benedict on this trip, titled, “Who will kill the pope in Istanbul?”

While such violent notions are being publicly minimized by Vatican officials, who say they are confident the trip will be peaceful and successful, there is certainly an anticipation verging on trepidation that is generally lacking on papal travels. Everyone is bracing for the next chapter in the history of the Roman Catholic papacy and the people of Turkey that will open on Tuesday.

Until September, Stephen Weeke was NBC News' Rome bureau chief for more than a decade. He is now based in New York. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Thousands protest pope's visit to Turkey

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