Pope Pushes Turkey To Protect Christians

Pope Benedict XVI preaches at a mass beside the House of the Virgin Mary November 29, 2006 in Ephesus, near Selcuk, Turkey. The pope is on his first four day visit to the Muslim country. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
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This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.
Politics has been the dominant feature of Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Turkey, a vexing if inevitable distraction from his aim of applying pressure for more protection for the Christian minority.

The irony is that the pope, who has railed against secularism in Europe, is seeking conciliation with a determinedly secular state.

In all, 99 percent of Turkey's 72 million people are Muslims — but the state goes to great lengths to ensure that religion is not a feature of the power structure.

Writing in the English-language Turkish Daily News, political analyst Kristen Stevens put it this way: "Secularism is understood in Turkey not as the separation of church and state but as the domination of the state over all religious institutions and practices. The military and the judiciary, with support from the members of the country's secular elite, continue to wage a private and public campaign against Islamic fundamentalism, which they view as a threat to the secular republic."

The pope ventured tentatively into that sacred ground in a homily at the site of the Shrine of the House of the Virgin Mary, a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims — who hold Mary in such esteem that she merits dozens of references in the Koran.

"Dear brothers and sisters," Benedict addressed one of the smallest congregations ever seen at a papal pilgrimage mass, "in this visit I have wanted to convey my personal love and spiritual closeness, together with that of the universal Church, to the Christian community here in Turkey, a small minority which faces many challenges and difficulties daily."

Later on the second day of his four-day pilgrimage, Benedict moves onto even shakier ground when he visits the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The meeting is the latest effort to heal the millennium-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Religious differences aside, the pope must deal with the fact that the Turks refuse to recognize the title "Ecumenical" because it carries with it the connotation that the Patriarch is the leader of the worldwide community of 250 million Orthodox Catholics, and as such they fear he may try to establish a Vatican-like independence within Turkey.

For his part, Bartholomew has said the title is the one thing he cannot and will not give up.

It is a case of neither the mountain nor Mohammed coming to each other. Turkey clings so strictly to its principles that headscarves, which have caused such an uproar in Europe, are not permitted here in state universities and institutions — including parliament and hospitals.

On the face of it, that would seem to be one thing in favor of Turkey entering Europe. But the failure to make progress on freedom of religion, the issue Benedict is trying to resolve, is an obstacle to Turkey's cherished dream of EU membership.

However, the pope is doing well. An editorial in the English language paper The New Anatolian summed up Benedict's first days with the headline "So Far, So Good."

The editorial noted that, "Since his arrival here, the pope has shown respect and affection that has been very positive for the Turkish people."

At the end of the day, it seems, everybody wants the pope's blessing in some form or another.