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Pope Renews Call for Open Christian-Muslim Dialogue

On the first day of his visit to Turkey, Pope Benedict called for freedom of religion and said the best way forward for Christians and Muslims is authentic dialogue. Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Istanbul.

Following a meeting in Ankara with the head of Turkey's religious affairs department, Ali Bardakoglu, Pope Benedict said guarantees of religious freedom are essential for a just society. In his speech, the pope also spoke of the need for authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

The pope said Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in one God. Following their respective traditions, they point to the truth of the sacred character and dignity of the person.

"This is the basis of our mutual respect and esteem, this is the basis for cooperation in the service of peace between nations and peoples," he said.

The pope said peace is the basis of all religions. He said the aim of his four-day visit to Turkey is to stimulate dialogue and a commitment to understanding between cultures and religions.

In what was clearly a reference to the comments on Islam the pope made two months ago in Germany, religious affairs director Bardakoglu said growing Islamophobia in the West and the conviction that Muslims use the sword to expand Islam hurts all Muslims.

The Muslim cleric said Islam denounces all forms of terrorism, regardless of the identity of its victims.

Many Muslims are still angry about the pope's comments, and say he never fully apologized for them. Before the pontiff's arrival, a small protest was held Tuesday outside the Diyanet, the religious affairs directorate in Ankara.

Earlier Tuesday the pope paid a courtesy visit to the Turkish president and visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Exceptional security measures have been taken for the pope's visit. His arrival at the airport was a low-key affair but he was welcomed at the foot of the plane by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During talks at the airport terminal, the pope described Turkey as a democratic, Islamic country and a bridge between religions.

Prime Minister Erdogan said after the meeting that the pope told him he backed Ankara's bid to join the European Union and said Islam was a religion of peace.

Benedict leaves Ankara on Wednesday for Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last years, and he will then travel to Istanbul.