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Pope Benedict Visits Turkey

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Turkey for three days, beginning November 28th, the trip will involve far more than the symbolism of the leader of Roman Catholicism travelling to a Muslim-majority country. There are broad objectives being sought not only by the Pop but also by his secular and religious hosts.

When the leader of more than one billion Roman Catholics makes a visit to another country, the event is typically one of spiritual outreach to the church's followers there. Such visits feature huge religious services and touring major religious shrines.

But the upcoming trip by Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey is outside the traditional mold. Turkey has only a small minority of Christians, let alone Roman Catholics. The trip also comes at a time when friction between Islam's 1.3 billion followers and Christianity has increased.

Religious Dialogue

The Papal journey started off as something ordinary. Fadi Hakura at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London says the Istanbul-based head of the Greek Orthodox branch of Catholicism, Patriarch Bartholomew, issued the invitation as part of a recently-forged dialogue meant to help close centuries-old divisions between Rome and Constantinople, the ancient name for Istanbul.

"The Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Turkey had very positive relations with the previous Pope, John Paul II. So the Patriarch wanted to engage in face-to-face discussion with the new Pope, Benedict XVI, to continue with those bilateral ties that were started with the previous Pope," says Hakura.

The Turkish government also extended an invitation to Pope Benedict, who responded by making Ankara, the nation's capital, his first stop. Many observers say that decision shows the political, as well as spiritual, importance of the Pope's visit.

But in September, after the trip was set, the Pope angered many in the Muslim world with a speech he gave at a German university. In that address, the Pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who asserted that the Prophet Mohammed was "evil and inhuman" to call for the spread of Islam by the sword, if necessary. That prompted several Turkish officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to publicly condemn the Pope's remarks. But Ankara did not give in to calls to cancel the Papal visit.

Graham Fuller, author of the book: The Future of Political Islam, says Turkey gained the high ground by not withdrawing its invitation.

"It's very good politics, one-upping the Pope's own position. The remark [about the Prophet Mohammed] from a diplomatic point of view, or even an intellectual point of view, was rather imbalanced and highly out of place for a man who speaks for the entire [Roman Catholic] Church. So in this sense, Ankara is really giving him a chance to restate his position on what the problem [between Christians and Muslims] is," says Fuller.

Turkey and the EU

But Bulent Alireza, an expert on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Ankara's reaffirming the invitation was driven primarily by its desire not to derail a larger objective.

"There are practical motives in play here - - to show that it [i.e., Turkey] is on track for a dialogue and eventual incorporation into the western world and, specifically, into the European Union. A cancellation at this stage would have created problems by getting everybody to focus on what was dividing, rather than what was uniting, Turkey as an aspirant to the European Union and the western world," says Alireza.

Pope Benedict's trip takes place before of the European Union's mid-December meeting, at which Turkey's E.U. accession bid will likely be discussed. John Voll, an Islamic Studies professor at Georgetown University in Washington, says Ankara can use this visit to try to change attitudes and erceptions held by some E.U. leaders and lawmakers.

"Among conservative politicians with the "Christian" label in Western Europe, their attitude toward Turkey is shaped by their primary contact with Turks -- the guest workers in Germany and other [Western European] countries. They have not yet really accustomed themselves to having real dealings with the Republic of Turkey," says Voll.

Voll notes that many Europeans also judge Muslims by the guest workers in their countries, and that incidents such as the 2005 murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh by a radical Islamist and several acts of actual or planned terrorism, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings, have reinforced some people's reservations about expanding the European Union to include Turkey. There is also the perception by many Europeans, according to some analysts, that while they have accommodated Islam, Muslims remain intolerant of Christianity.

Christian Minority in Turkey

Ankara's hopes of polishing its image among E.U. member states, according to George Demacopoulos at Fordham University in New York City, may also depend on its reaction to a religious issue the Pope is expected to bring up during his Turkish visit.

"What the Pope is doing by personally going [to Turkey], rather than ending a delegate, is [that] he is trying to draw attention to the situation or the plight of the Orthodox Christian community in Turkey," says Demacopoulos. The only way Turkey can be admitted into the E.U. is if it grants religious freedom to the Christian minority, which it has been very reluctant to do in the past."

Demacopoulos says that if Pope Benedict does raise freedom of religious epression with the Turkish government, it puts Ankara in a difficult situation. He says Turkey fears that by relaxing restrictions on religious expression, fundamentalist Islam will expand its influence, making it more difficult to preserve the country's political secularity. But the European Union makes it clear that member states must afford freedom of religious expression to all citizens, which Turkey will have to do follow if it wants to join.

Can Pope Benedict mend strained ties with both Orthodox Christianity and Islam? Those who watch the Vatican say his physical presence in a country important to both of those faiths goes a long way toward providing an opportunity for inter-religious dialogue. And many observers say that because the world will be carefully watching this Papal trip, every word and gesture the Pope makes could have significance for years to come.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.