Pope supports Turkey's entry into European Union

Posted in Other | 28-Nov-06 | Author: Ian Fisher and Sabrina Taverni| Source: International Herald Tribune

Pope Benedict XVI leaving the Atatürk Mausoleum in Ankara, Tuesday.

ANKARA: Pope Benedict XVI came to Turkey on Tuesday carrying a surprise gesture of goodwill that could blunt much of the Muslim anger against him: Publicly reversing his own personal objections, the pope gave his blessing to Turkey's deep and long- stalled desire to join the European Union.

"I asked his support for our membership in the European Union," the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters after a brief, last- minute meeting with Benedict at the airport here. "The pope said they did not have the political power to interfere but said they would like to see Turkey as a member."

The Vatican does not play any formal role in EU process, but the pope's gesture was nonetheless a deft piece of political stagecraft at a delicate time in relations between Muslims and the West and for this pope's own damaged reputation among Muslims.

Long before he angered the Muslim world two months ago with a speech critized as equating Islam with violence, Benedict was not liked here because of comments he made, as a cardinal in 2004, opposing Turkey's EU membership. As the successor to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always stood, he said at the time, "in permanent contrast to Europe."

But the 79-year-old pope's concession Tuesday, at the start of a four-day trip here, seemed a concrete act to make good on his pledge, amid the uproar among Muslims over the speech, to heal the wounds between East and West. It also may have the practical effect of tamping the still-smoldering anger here. Because of that anger, security Tuesday was thick, with helicopters hovering at the airport, commandos draped in bullets guarding the pope's plane from Rome and sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings.

The pope also seemed to demonstrate a bit of diplomacy that many critics said his speech two months ago lacked: Since Benedict did not make any announcement himself, it appeared to some degree a concession won by Erdogan, who is rooted in a moderate political Islam and who, until Monday, had said he would not be able to meet the pope on this visit. As the leader of the only Muslim country in NATO, Erdogan left immediately after speaking with the pope to attend a meeting of the Western military alliance in Latvia.

Hours later, the pope's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, released a brief statement repeating that the Vatican had "neither the power nor the specific political task" of gaining Turkey's admission to the Union in a time of apparently growing opposition in Europe to Turkey's accession.

But Lombardi said that the Vatican "views positively and encourages the road of dialogue and of moving toward integration of Turkey in Europe on the basis of common values and principles."

The trip here is Benedict's fifth outside Italy since he was elected pope last year, and his first both outside the European Union and to a predominantly Muslim country. His main aim in this trip is to visit leaders of the Orthodox patriarchy here, as part of his goal to mend the 1,000-year rift between the Roman church and the 220 million Orthodox.

But Christians make up less than half a percent of Turkey's 72 million people.

Even before a speech in September in Germany, when the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor who referred to Islam as "evil and inhuman,"

it was clear that this trip would be far different from the trips to Christian countries. The trip to Turkey, though now a modern and secular democracy, seemed particularly fraught with symbolism: Here Christian and Muslim warriors battled for centuries, as the Byzantine empire founded by Rome's first Christian emperor gave way to Muslim Ottoman Turks who established their own empire and pushed deep into Europe.

After his plane touched down, the white-robed pope was met at the airport with a red carpet and a small honor guard, but with none of the music, cheering crowds and waving banners of other trips. Rather, small demonstrations protesting Benedict's visit were held here and in Istanbul, where the pope will travel Wednesday.

In brief comments on the plane, Benedict, who had apologized for the at- times violent reaction to his speech, made clear that one of his chief aims was to stimulate a dialogue to bring Christians and Muslims, the West and East, closer.

"The scope of this visit is dialogue, brotherhood, a commitment to understanding between cultures, between religions, for reconciliation," he told reporters before his plane took off from Rome.

Erdogan, who unexpectedly greeted the pope at his plane, spoke too of the need for greater understanding.

"We are going through a tough period when the culture of violence has been expanding and our world faces disaster scenarios like the clashes of civilizations and polarizations in various directions," he told reporters after his 20- minute meeting with Benedict. "Therefore, we need mutual understanding among different beliefs and civilizations more than any time in history."

He said he viewed the pope's visit as "very important" in building "an alliance of civilizations," even as he seemed to refer to the pope's speech about Islam and violence.

"I told him that Islam was a religion of peace and tolerance, and I saw that he shared this view," he said.

Even before the meeting between Benedict and Erdogan, the Vatican had obliquely signaled a warming to the idea of Turkey's membership in the EU. Over the weekend, several church officials said the Vatican had no such opposition. The Vatican has never issued a formal position on the issue, In 2004, when the future pope said it would be a "grave error" for Turkey to join the EU, both he and other church officials made clear it was his personal opinion.

It is unclear what effect the pope's reversal will have on the fraught and broader debate in Western Europe over Turkey's membership, especially among conservatives who shared the views expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger two years ago. Some of the opposition is general, rooted in the fear of more terror attacks in Europe and already-difficult integration of millions of Muslims in Europe.

Many of the problems, though, are specifically tied to the difficulty Turkey has had in meeting specific demands of Europe to join, and the pope's visit comes at a particularly sensitive time in Turkey's talks with European negotiators.

Admission talks, which began this year, have hit a snag over the insistence, by the European Union, that Turkey open its ports and harbors to vessels from Greek Cyprus, an internationally recognized state opposed by Turkey. But officials in Turkey say they cannot do that until an international embargo that has been in place on the Turkish part of the island for more than 20 years, is lifted.

The stalemate has frustrated Turkish officials, who are working toward meetings among European Union members in December.

"Everything is just stuck," said Namik Tan, spokesman for Turkey's Foreign Ministry in an interview Monday. "How can an elected government with all these restrictions over the Turkish Cypriots open its ports without any restrictions? This government has a public here."

On Tuesday night, officials from the European Union met to set conditions for the future of the talks. Turkish officials expect certain topics in the negotiations to be suspended, but for others to continue, an assumption that was expressed by Erdogan on Tuesday.

"Look, they said there would be a train crash," he said at the press conference. "Now they say, there is no train crash, but the train slowed down."

After his meeting with Erdogan, Benedict visited the grave of Kemal Attaturk, the founder of the secular Turkish state after World War I, creating with much struggle the fullest democracy in the Muslim world.

He met later with the nation's chief Muslim religious figure, Ali Bardakoglu, who was among the fiercest critics of the pope's speech two months ago, and Turkey's president, Ahmed Necdet Sezer. Later in the evening, he met with members of the world's diplomatic corps in Turkey's capital. At every stop, he stressed the need for greater joint efforts to end terror, war and misunderstanding.

"I appreciate the efforts of numerous countries currently engaged in rebuilding peace in Lebanon, Turkey, among them," he told the ambassadors. "In your presence, ambassadors, I appeal once more to the vigilance of the international community, that it not abandon its responsibilities, but make every effort to promote peace and dialogue."

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Ankara.