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Turkish Muslims skeptical about the Pope's impending visit

ANKARA, Turkey—Beside a narrow stone road, with the brilliant reds and blues of prayer rugs for sale acting like a canopy, Ugur Basci paused between sips of tea to say that East and West, Islam and Christianity can coexist peacefully, beautifully.

But, he said, such healing is unlikely to begin when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Muslim Turkey on Tuesday for a four-day visit.

"We Muslims believe in reconciliation; that is clear," said the 69-year-old merchant and Haji, meaning one who's made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. "But this pope, it is clear to us that he does not. He does not respect Islam. He does not respect Turkey."

The pope's visit isn't shaping up so much as a difficult four days as a mission behind enemy lines. A protest group this week took control of the famous Hagia Sophia, an Eastern Orthodox church in Istanbul that was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1935, to protest the visit, but officials here dismiss Western fears for the pope's safety.

"Will there be protests? Yes, of course," said Meliha Benli Altunisik, the chair of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. "But I cannot take seriously the notion that he is in physical danger. He will rather be ignored."

If there are no protests, few people are likely to turn out to see Benedict. Turkey has almost 70 million residents but only about 93,000 Christians, according to State Department estimates.

"The Turks only really care about two popes: John XXIII, who established diplomatic relations with Turkey. He's the pope who liked Turkey," said the Rev. Jean-Marc Balhan, who preaches Sundays in a church the size of a racquetball court in an old French diplomatic building. "And then there's Benedict XVI. He's the pope who doesn't like Turkey."

The pope began planning this trip before Sept. 12, when in a speech he quoted from a 1391 dialogue on Christianity and Islam between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian. He quoted the emperor as saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The ancient quotation quickly joined the list of Muslim grievances against the West, along with the U.S.-led attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli attack on Lebanon, the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the French ban on the hijab—the head scarf that many Muslim women wear—in state schools.

Muslim reaction was angry and, at times, violent. Salih Kapusuz, the deputy leader of Turkey's ruling AK political party, said: "The owner of those unfortunate and arrogant comments, Benedict XVI, has gone down in history, but in the same category as Hitler and Mussolini. . . . It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades."

This week, a raft of Turkish political leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the foreign minister, have announced that they have engagements that will make it impossible for them to meet the pope. The Turkish press has suggested that leaders may be unwilling to be photographed with an unpopular pope as the country heads into a campaign season.

Turkish dislike for Benedict began even before he became pope, in August 2004, when, talking about the country's application for membership in the European Union, he told the French newspaper Le Figaro:

"Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. It is its culture that gives it a common identity. . . . In this sense, throughout history Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe. There were the wars against the Byzantine Empire, the fall of Constantinople, the Balkan wars and the threat against Vienna and Austria. That is why I think it would be an error to equate the two continents. It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of culture for the sake of economic benefits."

Beyond possibly harming Turkey's chances of entering the EU, an issue important to the country's economic well-being, such statements enraged many Turks, who think the pope misconstrues their national character.

Although 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Turkey has considered itself a secular, democratic state since its modern founding in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Faruk Logoglu, a retired Turkish ambassador who heads the nation's most prestigious research center, ASAM, said that Ataturk's legacy—lean to the West; focus on the sciences, not religion; maintain democracy—still drove Turkish politics.

"There is a current struggle between those who defend Ataturk and Islamists, who challenge him," he said. "And he would surely roll over in his grave at the possibility that our next president could have a wife who wears a head scarf. But we remain a secular state."

A poll released last week by The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Institution found that while Islam is rising, the desire for a religious state is decreasing. The number of women who cover their hair for religious reasons has decreased in the past seven years, and although half of those surveyed opposed their children marrying outside their religion, only 22 percent said they believed that secularism was threatened.

"We're in a time when nationalism is rising, and when Islam is rising," said Nazlan Ertan, the executive editor of The New Anatolian newspaper in Ankara. "This pope just happened to insult us on both counts."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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