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Pope Arrives in Turkey, Marking His First Visit to a Muslim Country as Pontiff

November 28, 2006 at 10:41 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Two months after inflaming Muslim public opinion around the world with comments equating Islam with violence, Pope Benedict XVI is in Ankara beginning his four-day visit to Turkey.

He was welcomed at the airport by the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only decided to meet the pope at the 11th hour. The two men talked for 20 minutes in an airport VIP lounge, and the prime minister says the pope told him he would like Turkey to join the European Union. That’s a huge u-turn from what the pope said two years ago about Turkey’s unsuitability to join the club of Christian nations.

The pope’s first stop amid some of the tightest security Ankara has ever seen was the Ataturk Mausoleum. It’s the resting place of Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder, who built the Turkish republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, and imposed the constitutional separation that still exists here between religion and state.

At a meeting with the head of Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, the government office that oversees all the country’s religious institutions, the pope called for an authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims and for mutual respect for the differences between the two faiths.

Pressure on Turkey’s government to keep the pope at arm’s length was on open display in recent days. In Istanbul Sunday, one Islamic political party held a protest, and several thousand people demonstrated, shouted, “God is great,” and, “Pope stay home.”

Flag vendor Vedat Yanar said he wants the pope to express tolerance for other religions.

VEDAT YANAR, Flag Vendor (through translator): He has to apologize, really. He has to have respect for other religions. He may not belong to that religion, but there’s a huge population belonging to it, so he has to show respect for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Other protesters said they wanted to hear a very clear statement of apology from the pope, more than the regrets he previously offered for the September speech in which he cited the belief that Islam was, quote, “spread by the sword.”

LEYLA OZTURK, Student (through translator): We want the pope to apologize, and we want him to come here only after he’s apologized and not before.

MARGARET WARNER: Further protests are anticipated later this week, particularly during the pope’s delicate visit to Istanbul. There, in a gesture of respect for Islam, he will visit the 17th-century Blue Mosque, and there are other landmarks on his itinerary of high symbolic significance.

This building, called Aya Sofia by the Turks, was fought over by Christians and Muslims for centuries. It’s potentially the most controversial site of the pope’s visit, and his deeds here will be as important as his words.

The pope is spending the night in Ankara at the embassy of the Holy See. Tomorrow, he’ll head to Ephesus and then Istanbul, as the guest of the Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world’s 250 million orthodox Christians.

Prime minister meets with pope

GWEN IFILL: Ray Suarez spoke with Margaret from Ankara after she prepared that report.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, welcome. Can Pope Benedict's conciliatory message toward Turks, toward Islam even be heard over the din of the controversy accompanying his visit?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ray, I think we'll know that when we see the morning papers and when we see Turkish television tonight. But certainly both sides, both the Vatican and the Turkish government, had decided it was in their best interest to make this as positive and conciliatory a meeting as possible.

So all the language and the body language has been very accommodating toward one another, with one exception. There were some slightly tough words in one meeting. Whether that will overcome the feeling that many Muslims here have -- that the pope does not respect their religion -- remains to be seen.

RAY SUAREZ: Originally, Prime Minister Erdogan wasn't even supposed to see the pope. How did the schedule change? And how did that visit come off?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as you said, Ray, as recently as last Friday, Erdogan was giving interviews saying he couldn't possibly be late to the NATO meeting and he couldn't possibly be here when the pope was here. And that just didn't wash, because the pope is here four days. The NATO meeting is only two.

Then, around Saturday, the Turkish government -- I'm told by someone in the government -- began to really realize this was backfiring on them in a big way, that it was seen as a snub, a deliberate snub, which in fact it was, over the pope's Regensburg speech.

And so the foreign minister offered to come back early and have dinner with the pope. The Vatican dismissed that out of hand, just said he was too busy. And so really, just in the last 36 hours, Erdogan decided he could, in fact, delay his departure for the NATO summit in Latvia and meet the pope at the airport.

Then, of course, he got this unexpected gift of the pope saying something nice about the prospect of Turkey in the EU.

Pope offers conciliatory message

RAY SUAREZ: Was that a new development, a change of position for Pope Benedict?

MARGARET WARNER: A major change of position. Pope Benedict, when he was a cardinal, had given an interview to Le Monde two or three years ago in which he said that, you know, Turkey was part of a different civilization, that the continents Europe and Asia were different. It wasn't just a matter of geography, but of culture and civilization.

He talked about Turkey and, you know, the Ottoman Empire, and coming to the gates of Vienna. And he just said it would be a huge mistake to have Turkey in NATO. It would be sacrificing something cultural and civilizational for economic reasons.

So for him to indicate any support for Turkey being in the EU was, in fact, a major delight to Turkish officials here.

RAY SUAREZ: Pope Benedict happened to succeed a very popular pope, John Paul II, who was known to mingle and have a lot of interaction with the people of the countries he visited. Is that even possible, given the nature of the security on this trip?

MARGARET WARNER: I don't think so, Ray, and I don't think it's in the cards. Today, he moved from one very well-fortified government building to another, the Ataturk Mausoleum over my shoulder. You know, he went to the presidential palace, the religious affairs department. He ended up in the Vatican embassy for the night.

There is not a plan to have him out and mingling with people. The public opinion here against the pope is just running too high. And despite today's conciliatory gestures, I would be very surprised if an effort were made to suddenly expose him to crowds in any kind of uncontrolled way.

Discouraging violence for religion

RAY SUAREZ: The pope's itinerary, as you mentioned, included a meeting with the religious affairs minister, who's been a critic of the pope. Tell me about that meeting.

MARGARET WARNER: It was very interesting. I did go to that, or I went to the press availability afterwards. And when they walked in together, they were both almost dressed alike, I mean, these creamy white robes, and their clerical caps on their heads.

They stood in front of us. They actually clasped hands, and then sat down. Now, everyone had already read the pope's remarks, because they'd been handed out. And they were -- again, I keep using the word "conciliatory," but they were very conciliatory, so when the religious affairs minister started speaking -- and this is the department that controls all the religious institutions in this country -- he had much the same tone.

He talked about Christianity and Islam as two branches from the same family tree essentially, both believing in one God, descended from Abraham. He talked about religious sites of significance to both religions in this country. He talked about there being a spiritual bond and that both religions are trying to address the need that mankind has for meaning of life in an increasingly globalized world.

Then, at the very end, he said there is one disturbing trend, he said, which is toward greater Islamophobia in the world. And he said that was because there were people who were saying that Islam was equated with violence and that Islam had been spread at the point of a sword.

Now, that's exactly what the pope had said in his Regensburg speech, quoting someone else, but nonetheless said it. And the religious affairs minister said today, you know, to say something like that only gives further encouragement to others to commit wrongful acts in the name of religion. And then he ended with some nice words.

The pope went ahead with his prepared remarks, but then, in the final event of the day, when he had a reception with diplomats here in Ankara, he did give his view of religion and its responsibility in terror and violence. And he said that all clerics of all faiths had a total responsibility never to encourage violence in the name of religion.

So the bottom line is here that there have been a lot of nice words and a lot of great body language, and I think, from what you hear, a real effort to bridge this gap and for Turkey to be seen as a place where this gap can be bridged.

At the same time, the topic that the pope was trying to get on the table back at Regensburg, which is the connection between religion and violence in the modern world, was, in fact, on the table today.

RAY SUAREZ: Our Margaret Warner reporting from Ankara, Turkey. Margaret, good to talk to you.

MARGARET WARNER: Great talking to you, Ray.