Benedict honours murdered priest on Turkish pilgrimage

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On the second day of his visit to Turkey, Pope Benedict turned parish priest, celebrating Mass with 250 people beside a house where the Virgin Mary is reputed to have spent her last years. He also honoured the name of an Italian Catholic priest shot dead in February by a Turkish teenager, apparently in an act of revenge during the row over "blasphemous" Danish cartoons.

"Let us sing joyfully," the Pope told the congregation, one of the smallest in memory for a papal mass, "even when we are tested by difficulties and dangers as we have learnt from the fine witness given by the Reverend Andrea Santoro." Fr Santoro was shot while praying in his church in Trabzon, a former Greek enclave on the Black Sea coast. His murderer, Oguzhan Aydin, 16, was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

The sense of a church embattled and besieged was strongly present during the ceremony. On Tuesday, the Pope was a head of state and the head of a world religion, chauffered from one stiff state engagement in Ankara, the Turkish capital, to another. Yesterday, he celebrated mass before parishioners who crowded in among the olive trees next to "Mary's House". He did not say whether Mary moved here from Jerusalem some time after her son Jesus was crucified AD30 but simply called Ephesus - the ancient Greek name for the area - "a city blessed by the presence of Mary Most Holy". He focused on theological questions rather than scant historical facts.

This was extraordinary. The Pope never appears before a crowd less than thousands, often tens of thousands, strong. For most pilgrims he is never more than a distant white shape, framed in a Vatican window. But here at the Mary House in Ephesus he was practically within arm's reach.

It was claimed the worshippers were carefully selected, a privileged slice of Catholic life on Turkey's Aegean coast, whose Christian history goes back to the Apostles. Certainly, some in the gathering were Turkish Catholics, as Turkish responses were clearly called and psalms and chants in Turkish vigorously sung.

But dozens were journalists and many more were plainclothes Turkish security; there were US servicemen and their chaplain from a nearby air force base, retired English and Irish expatriates from nearby towns and a French couple with roots in Izmir.

They gave a snapshot of how reduced the Christian community has become in the area where it enjoyed its first major spurt of growth. There are fewer than 90,000 Christians in Turkey, with its population of 70 million.

At least a dozen people at the mass were recent settlers and most said they very happy about their move. Jane Moulding, originally from Scarborough, said: "We live alongside Muslims and they treat us very well."

But another Briton said: "There is no freedom of religion in Turkey. We live in Bodrum, more than 200km away, and this is our nearest church." Though a beautiful pilgrimage site, the restored building barely qualifies as a church: a small, squat, solid stone house, it has no regular services. Masses are only held on special occasions.

"We would like to have a church of our own in the town but the authorities make it impossible," said an Anglican woman, who asked for her name to be witheld. "It's against the law to have any Christian service in a public building. We can only have communion in private homes."

The site of the house was identified in a vision by a nun called Anna Emmerich in 1812, but it has only become a popular pilgrimage site since a road was built up the mountain in 1950. Two of Benedict's predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, also came this way.