ROME - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan has urged Pope Benedict XVI to back the "Alliance of Civilizations" between the West and the Muslim world launched in 2004 by Ankara and Madrid.

"The pope, who is both a politician and a religious figure, can play an important role in replacing a climate of war with a climate of peace," Erdogan said over Italian television late Thursday.

Erdogan, who will not be in Ankara during the pope's visit next week, said his "only message" for Benedict was "to support the Turko-Spanish initiative of an 'Alliance of Civilizations' as an alternative to the clash of civilizations."

The initiative, launched at the United Nations in September 2004, is designed to join Western and Muslim states to fight radical Islam.

It calls on institutions and civil society to overcome prejudices and misunderstandings between peoples of different cultures and religions.

Erdogan, the head of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which has Islamist roots, reiterated his stance on the pope's remarks in September viewed by Muslims as linking Islam to violence.

"We have never allowed ourselves to insult the prophets of other religions," he said. "Our faith even orders us to respect them. Thus we have the right to expect the same treatment from members of other religions."

Erdogan will be unable to meet the head of the Roman Catholic Church during his November 28-December 1 visit because he will be at the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia.

"We cannot neglect the Atlantic Alliance because the pope is coming to Turkey," he said.

11/24/2006 14:32 GMT

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