Turkish nationalists protest trip as deputy premier criticizes patriarch
Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful from his summer residence of Castelgandolfo, near Rome, yesterday. As cardinal, he questioned whether the EU should open its doors to Turkey.
By Selcan Hacaoglu - The Associated Press
ANKARA - A small group of Turkish nationalists yesterday protested a possible visit by the pope, and the deputy premier criticized the Greek Orthodox patriarch for inviting the pontiff without first consulting the Turkish government.
Turkey's government on Thursday announced its own invitation to the pope to visit sometime next year, effectively canceling the Orthodox patriarch's earlier invitation for the pope to visit in November.
Turkey refuses to recognize Greek Orthodox Patriarch Vartholomaios I as the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians, considering him only the spiritual leader of Turkey's tiny Greek Orthodox minority.
Vartholomaios's personal invitation to the pope faced strong opposition here.
Yesterday, a few dozen members of the youth wing of the ultra-nationalist Great Unity Party demonstrated near the sixth century Hagia Sophia - a famous Istanbul landmark and once Greek Orthodoxy's holiest shrine - after some newspapers speculated that the pontiff would pray inside the building. The church was long ago converted into a mosque, then a museum.
Vartholomaios had invited Pope Benedict XVI to Istanbul, the seat of the patriarchate, for the Orthodox feast of St Andrew in November. Benedict has made healing the 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox Church a goal of his pontificate and officials at the Vatican said the pope wanted to accept the invitation but was waiting for the agreement of Turkey, the host country.
That agreement did not come and the Turkish government is now waiting for the Vatican's response to its invitation to visit in 2006.
Turkey considers the pope to be the leader of a state, the Vatican, and has insisted that protocol dictates he be invited by the Turkish president.
Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said Vartholomaios should have sought the consent of the Turkish government before inviting the pope.
"The patriarchate is a Turkish institution and the patriarch is a Turkish citizen," said Sahin. "It is more appropriate for the patriarch to send his invitations through the Foreign Ministry in the future."
The patriarchate dates back to the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which ruled the region from Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul. Its Greek population has since dwindled to less than 2,000. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate is in a relatively poor section of the city, which is still a place of pilgrimage for Greeks.
Turkish officials had been deeply uncomfortable with the possibility of a papal visit that would focus on the church.
Turks fears that recognizing the patriarch's global influence could create a Vatican-style mini-state in Istanbul that would act against Turkish interests. Many Turks also regard the new pope as unfriendly.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope questioned whether the European Union should open its doors to predominantly Muslim Turkey, saying its membership might be incompatible with European culture. Turkey hopes to start membership negotiations with the bloc on October 3.