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A tense time for a papal visit

Turkey, which doesn't recognize the Roman Catholic Church, is still rankled by Benedict's comments on Islam.

November 25, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — To reach Turkey's most important Roman Catholic church, a visitor must scour a traffic-choked street to find the metal doors, walk down a flight of stairs, cross a courtyard and finally step into the consecrated basilica.

Inside the Holy Spirit Cathedral here, the lights remain low until a minute before evening Mass, and then reveal frescoed ceilings with gold-trimmed arches, 22 crystal chandeliers and blond-marble columns. On this night, 14 worshipers dot the pews.

In the Turkish capital, Ankara, the only Catholic church is even more discreet: It is marked simply by a French flag.

When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey next week, he will be making his first trip to a predominantly Muslim country at a moment of diplomatic fragility.

He also will be traversing some of the most ancient and revered milestones of Christianity, in a land where Christianity is disappearing and where non-Muslim minorities complain of systemic discrimination, harassment and violence against them.

It is a complex agenda. The pope's main purpose is to meet with the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in a show of ecumenical solidarity. But he must also use the visit to attempt to repair the damage from comments he has made that cast Islam in a negative light.

Among Turkey's nearly 70 million Muslims, reaction to Benedict's visit ranges from disinterest to intense anger. A man opened fire early this month on the Italian Consulate in Istanbul, telling police later that he wanted to "strangle" the pope. A nationalist gang called the Gray Wolves is staging regular demonstrations protesting the pontiff's arrival.

Among the estimated 100,000 Christians who live in Turkey, there is hope that Benedict's presence will cast light on their difficulties.

The Roman Catholic Church is not legally recognized in Turkey. It functions largely attached to foreign embassies; its priests do not wear their collars in public.

Most Christians in Turkey are of the Armenian, Greek and other Orthodox denominations, and although most of these are recognized in the Turkish Constitution as minority communities, they face severe restrictions on property ownership and cannot build places of worship or run seminaries to train their clerics.

Such hardships make it almost impossible for Christians to sustain and expand their communities, advocates say. The Greek Orthodox, for example, have dwindled to no more than 3,000, just 2% of the community's size in the 1960s.

Fueled by a vitriolic, and growing, potion of nationalism and Islamic radicalism, spasms of violence have led to the killing of one priest this year, the beatings of two others and the burning of a Christian prayer center. Christian tombstones are often vandalized and property frequently confiscated by authorities.

Turkey has come under repeated criticism from Western human rights organizations and the Vatican for its failure to promote religious freedom. Turkey is an Islamic but secular country; in reality, this means that all religious activity, including mosques and imams, is controlled by the government.

"Obviously, more needs to be done to promote religious freedom for all denominations," Ali Bardakoglu, president of Turkey's powerful Religious Affairs Directorate, said in an interview. But he defended the government's treatment of minorities, contending that Christians and other non-Muslims do not face serious problems.

Bardakoglu was one of the most emphatic critics of Benedict after the pope delivered a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in September that denounced Islamic violence and quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who disdained Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. Adding insult to injury, as far as many Turks were concerned, the emperor was defending Constantinople, cradle of Orthodox Christianity, against the Muslim conquest that gave the city its name today: Istanbul.

Bardakoglu said the pope was welcome in Turkey despite the speech, which touched off outrage throughout the Muslim world. And although he said he accepted Benedict's subsequent explanations, Bardakoglu did not appear completely appeased.

"It is unfortunate that there are circles within Western society that attempt to blacken the name of our religion and are infected with Islamophobia," he said. "The role of the Vatican and the pope should be to help fight stereotypes. Rather than open debate, they should be seeking to heal wounds."

In a remarkable gesture, the pope will meet with Bardakoglu, the country's top religious figure, at his ministry, a modern, imposing building on Ankara's outskirts, on the first day of his Turkey visit. Bardakoglu's directorate commands a huge budget and oversees all of Turkey's imams.

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