Pope flies to Turkey amid fears

Benedict XVI at risk on visit to minority Christians after anti-Islamic remarks
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The Independent Online

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Turkey tomorrow for a visit not only dogged by controversy but fraught with security worries.

About the only good news for the Pope is that Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who tried to assassinate his predecessor, is still behind bars. Since shooting John Paul II outside St Peter's Basilica in 1981, Agca has been in jail in Italy and Turkey.

This month he asked to be released, saying he wanted to meet Pope Benedict; John Paul II once visited Agca in his cell to ask why he had tried to kill him. But the Turkish authorities have remained firm; Agca will remain in prison till 2010.

But in every other respect, the Pope's four-day Turkish trip is beginning to look like the pontifical voyage from hell. Or to it.

The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople extended the invitation, which was seen as a way for the Pope to encourage and cheer Turkey's embattled 150,00 Christians, in a Muslim nation of 80 million.

But the Turkish authorities said it was their prerogative to invite a head of state. Benedict had made himself unpopular with his 2004 comment that Turkey had always been "in permanent contrast to Europe", and that for Turkey to join the EU would be a mistake. On his election as Pope, Turkish newspapers said he was anti-Turkish. Istanbul later changed its mind about the visit, and the Vatican agreed Benedict would become the third pope to visit the country after Paul VI in 1967 and John Paul in 1979.

But in a lecture in September, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor describing Islam as "evil and inhuman" because of the Prophet's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". It was an extraordinary gaffe, for which he expressed regret.

But by then, the Turkey trip was set in stone. "The Turkish government wasn't in a position to call it off, because of their EU ambitions," a Vatican insider said. "The Vatican couldn't call it off, or it would be seen to be capitulating to those who attacked him."

The Turkish government has pro-mised to protect him as zealously as it would an American president. It may need to.