Pope tells Religious Leaders to spurn Violence

Pope Benedict XVI has urged religious leaders of all faiths to 'utterly refuse' to support any form of violence in the name of faith.
( [email protected] ) Nov 29, 2006 08:18 AM EST

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI has urged religious leaders of all faiths 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 a growing "Islamophobia" in the world.

Benedict held a Mass on Wednesday at one of the holiest Christian places in Turkey as part of his efforts to reach out to the Roman Catholic minority in a mostly Muslim country.

The pontiff conducted the open-air Mass next to a house where the Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last years, and security forces had sealed off the area.

Only 250 people attended the event, making it one of the smallest crowds to attend a papal Mass.

As he began his first visit to a Muslim country Tuesday -- a trip that drew extraordinary security but few onlookers -- Benedict sought a careful balance as he held out a hand of friendship and "brotherhood" to Muslims, hoping to end the outcry from many Muslims over his recent remarks linking Islam to violence.

In a gesture welcomed by his hosts as well as the Muslim world-at-large, he expressed support for Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, moving away from opposition he voiced when he was a cardinal.

"Surprise from the pope," read a headline Wednesday in the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, referring to the pontiff's support for Turkish measures designed to bring the country closer to Europe.

"Call for dialogue from the pope," declared the daily Milliyet. Hurriyet newspaper said of the trip: "It started well."

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."

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 tiny Greek Orthodox community in Turkey.

The 79-year-old clearly made reconciliation a priority of his first day, taking on a taxing series of meetings that saw him needing a drink of water after coughing repeatedly while addressing the diplomats in the last public appearance in the evening.

Benedict'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, chief of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directories, warmly grasping hands. Benedict sat nearby as the 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 the 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.

On 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 have the sensation he was a welcome guest," said Vatican spokesman, 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 U.S. President George W. 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.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- in a last-minute change of plans -- welcomed the pope at 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.

It 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.

After Ephesus, the pope will 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.

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