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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ankara - Pope Benedict XVI in Turkey on Tuesday emphasized the closeness of Christianity and Islam and called for further dialogue between the two religions.

The pope said that both religions were of the same family and that there was a need to approach inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue with optimism and hope.

"The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common," the pope said at a joint meeting with the press with Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey`s most senior Muslim figure.

Benedict also quoted Pope Gregory VII who, in 1076, said that Christians and Muslims owe each other charity "because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the creator and ruler of the world."

Ali Bardakoglu, head of the state-controlled Turkish Religious Affairs Department, also noted the common roots of both religions but delivered a sharp rebuke to the pope for his speech last September in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying Islam was a religion that was spread by the sword.

"During recent periods we are observing that Islamophobia is gradually increasing," Bardakoglu said adding that that the idea that "Islam was spread over the world by swords," a phrase similar to that used last by the pope, was helping to increase anti-Muslim feelings.

"We Muslims condemn all types of violence and terror... Each member of Islam is regretful of, and complaining about, such claims," Bardakoglu said in clear reference to the pope`s earlier statements.

Bardakoglu said the statements were neither scientific nor historical.

The pope did not refer to his previous statements instead saying he was very glad to be in Turkey, a country he said was very dear to Christians.

"Many of the earliest church communities were founded here," the pope told Bardakoglu, adding that Turkey has also seen "a remarkable flowering of Islamic civilization."

Earlier on Tuesday the pope met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the pope had told him that he believed Islam to be a religion of tolerance.

The pope held a 20-minute meeting with Erdogan at Ankara`s Esenboga Airport after which Erdogan told reporters that he believed the pope`s visit was both significant and timely, saying it was important in order to stop a clash of civilizations.

The pope said that while the Vatican tries to stay out of politics, it "desires Turkish membership of the European Union," Erdogan said. A senior Vatican official later said that the Vatican "supports Turkey`s path towards the European Union."

When he was a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known before he became Pope Benedict XVI, had said that he was against Turkish membership of the EU, saying Turkey was not a European nation.

After meeting Erdogan the pope moved on to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, where he laid a wreath on Ataturk`s tomb and said a short prayer. He later was officially welcomed to Turkey at a ceremony hosted by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

The pope`s four-day visit is aimed at both calming the recently heated relations between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world as well as furthering a detente between the church in Rome and the Greek Orthodox Church.

"Mine is a pastoral, not a political trip," the pope said before boarding his flight in Rome.

"The objective of this trip is dialogue and a common undertaking for peace," he told reporters on the plane.

On Wednesday he is scheduled to travel to Ephesus to pray at a shrine to Mary, mother of Jesus, and will then fly to Istanbul where he will meet Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Turkish security forces were on high alert for the visit following a number of protests against the pope, including one in Istanbul on Sunday organised by a small religious party which saw a crowd of around 25,000 people attending.

On Tuesday there was a small protest outside the Directorate of Religious Affairs that was quickly broken up by police.

Benedict was expected back at the Vatican on December 1st.

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