Pope Benedict XVI urged leaders of all religions Tuesday to “utterly refuse” to support any form of violence in the name of faith, while Turkey’s top Muslim cleric complained to the pontiff of growing “Islamophobia” in the world.
As he began his first visit to a Muslim country — a trip that drew extraordinary security but few onlookers — Benedict sought a careful balance as he extended friendship and brotherhood to Muslims, hoping to end the outcry from many Muslims over his remarks linking Islam to violence.
He expressed support for Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, moving away from opposition he voiced when he was a cardinal.
But the German pope also hammered away at key points of his 18-month papacy, telling diplomats that leaders of all religions must “utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of faith.”
Mentions ‘disturbing conflicts’He avoided mention of any specific religion, even as he decried terrorism and the “disturbing conflicts across the Middle East.”
Benedict also said guarantees of religious freedom are essential for a just society, and the Vatican said he raised specific issues such as property rights of Turkey’s tiny 32,000-member Catholic community during talks with Turkish officials.
His comments could be reinforced later during the four-day visit when the pope meets in Istanbul with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
The pope is expected to call for greater rights and protections for Christian minorities in the Muslim world, including the small Greek Orthodox community in Turkey.
The 79-year-old made reconciliation a priority of his first day, taking on a taxing series of meetings during which he needed a drink of water after coughing repeatedly while addressing diplomats in the last public appearance in the evening.
Pilgrimage fraught with symbolismBenedict’s journey is extraordinarily sensitive, a closely watched pilgrimage full of symbolism that could offer hope of religious reconciliation or deepen what many say is a growing divide between the Christian and Islamic worlds.
Seeking to ease anger over his perceived criticism of Islam, Benedict met with Ali Bardakoglu, who heads religious affairs in Turkey, warmly grasping hands. Benedict sat nearby as the Muslim cleric defended his religion.
“The so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world and growing Islamophobia hurts all Muslims,” Bardakoglu said.
The comment appeared to be a reference to Benedict’s remarks in a speech in September when he quoted a 14th-century Christian emperor who characterized the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by thy sword the faith he preached.”
The Vatican described the cleric’s speech as “positive, respectful and non-polemical,” applauding what the church sees as efforts for a true dialogue between faiths.
25,000 protest in IstanbulOn Sunday, more than 25,000 Turks showed up to an anti-Vatican protest in Istanbul, asking the pope to stay at home, but on the streets of Ankara most people went about their usual business and only a tiny protest was held outside the religious affairs office hours before the pope arrived.
“Today we had the sensation he was a welcome guest,” said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
“All feel the same responsibility in this difficult moment in history, let’s work together,” Benedict said during his flight from Rome to Ankara, where more than 3,000 police and sharpshooters joined a security effort that surpassed even the visit of President Bush two years ago.
“We know that the scope of this trip is dialogue and brotherhood and the commitment for understanding between cultures ... and for reconciliation,” he said.
Erdogan hails visitPrime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — in a last-minute change of plans — welcomed the pope at the foot of the plane and described the visit as “very meaningful.” Erdogan’s political party has Islamic roots, though the government is secular.
In his first official act, Benedict visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and wrote a message in a guest book calling Turkey “a meeting point of different religions and cultures and a bridge between Asia and Europe.”
Police monitored the highway leading to Ankara from the airport, where Turkish and Vatican flags waved in a light breeze. Snipers climbed atop buildings and hilltops. In wooded areas along the route, soldiers in camouflage fatigues set up observation points and sniffer dogs passed along bridges.
First visit to Muslim countryIt was his first visit to a Muslim country as pontiff. The original goal of the pope’s trip to Turkey was to meet Bartholomew I, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Benedict split in 1054 over differences in opinion on the power of the papacy, and the two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches.
Benedict leaves Ankara on Wednesday for Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last years, and will then travel to Istanbul.
A closely watched moment of the trip will come Thursday during Benedict’s visit to Haghia Sophia, a 1,500-year-old site that was originally a Byzantine church and then turned into a mosque after the Muslim conquest of Istanbul — then known as Constantinople — in 1453. It is now a museum, and Turks would take offense at any religious gestures by the pontiff, who also plans to visit the nearby Blue Mosque.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI fell to his knees in prayer, touching off protests by Turks claiming he violated the secular nature of the domed complex. In 1979, Pope John Paul II made no overt religious signs during his visit.