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Pope to Use Turkey Trip to Encourage East-West Dialogue

EPA
Pope Benedict XVI talks with a delegation of Muslim leaders from the USA, who attended this month's first general audience in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City.

By Philip Pullella & Tom Heneghan - Reuters

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict will use his trip to predominantly Muslim Turkey later this year to promote greater dialogue between Islam and the West, a senior Vatican cardinal said yesterday.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German, also said in an interview with Reuters that he believed that controversy over remarks made by Benedict XVI before his election about Turkey's credentials to join the European Union had now been overcome.

The pope is scheduled to visit Turkey on November 28-30 for what will predominantly be a trip aimed at improving ties with Orthodox Christians, whose symbolic head, Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, is based in Istanbul.

"This is one of the main problems today, to come to a relationship with Islam which will not be a clash of civilizations but a dialogue between civilizations," Kasper, head of the Council for Christian Unity, said in a wide-ranging interview on the Catholic Church's ecumenical activities.

"Of course, nobody wants a clash of cultures. It would be disastrous for the whole world," Kasper said, adding that he expected the pope to speak on relations with Islam at meetings with Turkey's government in Ankara before going to Istanbul.

"There, I think, the problem is unavoidable," Kasper said.

Since his election in April, the pope has condemned cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad but has also called for charges to be dropped against an Afghan man who faces possible capital punishment because he converted from Islam to Christianity.

His aides have been stressing the Vatican's view that the rights of minority Christians in Islamic countries had to be respected as part of reciprocity for the religious freedoms available to Muslims in Christian countries.

Relations with Islam were also a top item on the agenda of closed-door discussions last week among over 150 cardinals meeting at the Vatican to admit 15 new members into what Benedict calls his "senate."

"There are many difficult and deep questions we have to solve with Islam but we also must remember times of good relations. There have been many positive influences of Islam, also on Christianity," Kasper said.

"We must try to deepen our dialogue with Islam, especially with moderate forces in Islam and to try to come to a positive and friendly relationship," he said.

When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope gave a controversial interview arguing that Europe's roots are Christian and that a Muslim country would not fit in.

Some 99 percent of Turks are Muslims, the majority of them in the mainstream Sunni tradition.

Most of Turkey's ancient Christian population--chiefly Greeks and Armenians--fled, perished or were exchanged with Greek Muslims in the 1920s.

The trip was delayed by a year because of Turkey's lingering suspicions about the comments, but Kasper said he believed the problem was now in the past and that the pope would not bring it up during the visit. "That was a private opinion by Cardinal Ratzinger... I don't think the Pope, when he goes to Turkey, will speak of this," Kasper said.

Turkey began EU membership talks last October, but is not due to join the bloc before 2015. Many in the EU are wary of admitting the large, mainly Muslim country of 72 million people.

The Pope's visit to Istanbul will be seen as a major step forward in ties between the Western Church and world Orthodoxy, which split in the schism of 1054.

copyright KATHIMERINI