Papal visit: On a wing and a prayer

As the Pope arrived in Turkey yesterday, he stepped into the middle of a cultural war: between Christianity and Islam; between Asia and Europe. Peter Popham reports from Ankara
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Pope Benedict took the most momentous steps of his pontificate yesterday. They carried him, as he said, across a "bridge", from one world to another: from Europe to Asia, from Christianity to Islam, from the tender embrace of Catholic Europe - the Italian state sent him on his way with ministers and high officials, they closed Rome's airport and escorted him out of Italian airspace with air force fighters - to a nation that has left no possible doubt that it views his arrival with the greatest diffidence.

Immediately he was ambushed. He came down the steps of the papal flight in an elegant but extravagantly long double-breasted ivory overcoat that fell to his ankles. (This pope will never, it seems, stop trying to live down his first appearances in the job last year, when his cassock barely came below his calves.) For weeks the Vatican had been bracing itself for a nasty snub: the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose wife does not go outdoors without a headscarf, would be away in Latvia at the Nato summit, it was explained, and could not meet Benedict.

But the Pope is a head of state, and Turkey's sights are still set on the European Union; why give more ammunition to those countries - the Austrians and French and Germans - who want the Turkish shadow banished from the EU? And so an airport meeting was arranged at the last minute. They sat, Benedict and Erdogan, under a portrait of Ataturk, father of the modern Turkish state. Mr Erdogan had unaccountably failed to button his jacket. No matter. They exchanged gifts, a painting for the Pope, a medal for the Turk. And they had a little, sotto voce chat.

Afterwards Mr Erdogan briefed the press on what they had said. "I welcomed him," he said, "and said that I hoped his visit would be fruitful for world peace... As you know, we never build upon hate, but I gave my condolences for the murder" - of an Italian Catholic priest, in February - "in the city of Trabzon. But I said that this should not be seen as a Muslim doing this to a Catholic."

All quite unexceptionable. But then he pounced. "I asked the Pope for his help with our application to join the European Union," said the sly Mr Erdogan. As everybody in Turkey and many people elsewhere know, the Pope (when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) is on the record as strenuously opposing Turkey's joining the EU, because its Muslim religion made it too "strongly contrasted" with Christian Europe.

Still, the Prime Minister popped the question: would the Pope help? Yes, according to the Prime Minister. "And the Pope said, as you know we are not political, but we will help Turkey's case."

Is that what Benedict said? Is the Holy See going to give Turkey's EU application an obliging shove? It took about three hours for an embarrassed Vatican to produce its own version. Then out it came, a scrupulous, lawyerly, clause-by-clause clarification. The Pope "has neither the power nor the specific political duty to intervene on this precise point," said the spokesman, Federico Lombardi, in a written statement. "But he sees positively and encourages the passage of dialogue for the inserting of Turkey in the EU, on the basis of specific common values."

Phew: one missile dodged. The reply hauled the Pope back from a position 180 degrees distant from his stated view on the subject to the carefully finessed, multiply interpretable type of ambiguity which is the Holy See's favourite diplomatic ground.

Still wearing the wonderful coat, Benedict was whisked in a white stretched Chevrolet limousine - not rock-star stretched, to be sure, but considerably longer than necessary - to the secular cathedral at the heart of Ankara, which was no more than a dusty provincial town in the middle of arid Anatolia until Ataturk made it his fortress and headquarters during Turkey's war of independence. That cathedral is of course the mausoleum of the Great Man himself, and Benedict would have found the architecture familiar because it is startlingly similar to the Fascist architecture of Rome.

The Pope will not use his Popemobile on this trip, for there is no need of one.

No well-wishers lined his way, nobody waved flags. Heavily armed riot police stood guard, but they had nothing to do, no one to protect him from. Neither well-wishers nor evil-wishers turned up. For the leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, visiting the land where Abraham walked and where live the last, vestigial communities of Christians speaking the same Aramaic language as Jesus Christ, it was a lonely progression. Inside the mausoleum he paused for several moments before the tomb, his hands clasped in prayer.

In the run-up to the Pope's Turkish visit, attention has concentrated on the perils of the trip, perils made very much worse by Benedict's use of the words "evil and inhuman" - quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor - to characterise Islam, in a speech he gave in September. Today in Ankara such apprehension seems overblown. Ankara barely turned its head for the Pope. There were traffic nuisances, hours of news coverage, and that was about it.

But there was an argument to be had and to be won, and the Pope was not going to be allowed to escape it. He had said - who in the Islamic world cares, really, that he was quoting someone else? - that Islam was evil and inhuman. He had expressed his regrets, but he had not eaten those words. And the Turks, in the four days that he is among them, are going to do their best to make him eat them. He had been on Turkish ground only a matter of minutes - he declined to follow his predecessor's example and kiss the Tarmac - when the Prime Minister had a go. "I told him," said Mr Erdogan, "that Islam is full of tolerance, love and peace, and I see that he shares this view. He has a warm approach to Islam."

Then in mid-afternoon Professor Ali Bardakoglu, the most important Islamic cleric in the land and head of the state's religious affairs department, had another try.

"We Muslims condemn all types of violence and terror," he said, dressed not unlike the Pope in long cream robes, but in his case topped off by a high-standing cream-coloured hat, called a saruk. "However during recent times we observe that Islamophobia, which expresses the conviction that Islam contains and encourages violence, and that Islam was spread all over the world by the sword... is increasing."

These views - the views voiced in Regensburg two months ago by the Pope, though he ascribed them to a long-dead Byzantine - "are not based on any scientific and historical researches and data," he went on, "and are not compatible with justice and reason".

The Pope, in that now infamous address, had distinguished "reasonable" Christianity (which attempted to win converts by force of argument) with "evil and inhuman" Islam, which believed in spreading the faith by the sword, by violence instead of persuasion. Now Turkey's most important cleric had thrown the words back in his face. The stage was set for a ferocious debate.

But the Pope and his advisers have a lively awareness of how easily it would be for this polemical Pope to fly off the rails again. So Benedict did not take up the challenge to prove his thesis. Instead he rummaged again in ancient ecclesiastical history and came up with somebody very different from the Byzantine Manuel II Paleologus. His name was Pope Gregory VII, and in 1076 he was addressing an (unnamed) Muslim prince of North Africa "who had shown great benevolence to Christians under his jurisdiction".

"Pope Gregory VII spoke of the special charity which Christians and Muslims must reciprocate," said the Pope, "because we believe and confess one God, though in different ways, and every day we venerate and praise him as the Creator of the ages and the Governor of the world."

Back to basics, then: forget the Great Schism of 1054 that rent apart the one church, forget the Crusades, the long centuries of vicious antagonism between Christians and Muslims; shunt aside, if only for a few days, the louring, menacing shapes of Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri (who have no shortage of supporters in Turkey). Forget that the Pope said what he said.

The paranoid, and those with their trigger fingers twitching, are on high alert for what Pope Ratzinger does during the next three days. Will he raise the Armenian genocide during his meeting with the Armenians? Will he use the word "ecumenical" when he meets the Orthodox patriarch, a word so harmless in Europe but which here is shorthand for the bid to bring back Byzantine? Will he make the sign of the cross as he enters the doors of Hagia Sophia?

But forget all that. Remember instead the instances of benevolence and charity: the fact that the Ottoman empire, Christendom's long antagonist, actually had a reasonable record in tolerating and succouring the non-Muslim communities in its midst.

Then remember Giuseppe Roncalli, the Holy See's apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece who lived in Istanbul from 1935 to 1945, who loved the Turks and was loved by them in return, and later became Pope John XXIII. In Turkey, neither the Muslims nor the now-tiny Christian and Jewish communities have forgotten him (the Jews call him a "righteous gentile" for his role in saving thousands of Jews during the war). And when he was beatified in 2000, the street where he had lived in Istanbul was renamed Roncalli Street, in his memory.