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CURRENT ISSUE:  October 9, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 17Oakland, CA

Pope’s trip to Turkey: Will it calm tension?

ISTANBUL – Even before it was clear that the man who hijacked a Turkish plane was not protesting Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip to Turkey – as initially reported on Turkish television and widely rebroadcast – Vatican officials said the incident would not prompt reconsideration of the trip scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 1.

The alleged hijacker, 28-year-old Hakan Ekinci, who had left the Turkish army and had been denied political asylum in Albania, apparently thought the hijacking would draw attention to his plight and his letter to the pope in August asking for help in getting asylum in Italy.

What is described as a copy of his letter was posted on a Turkish website. “Help me, pope,” he wrote. “I no longer want to live in a Muslim country. I can no longer breathe in a Muslim city. Only you, the supreme pontiff, can save me.”

Ekinci said he was baptized in 1999, a year after being drafted into the Turkish army. He was discharged after 18 days “thanks to the help of Jesus Christ,” he wrote.

The pope’s visit to Turkey will be his visit to a predominantly Muslim country.

Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said he hopes the trip will help calm recent tensions with Islam and advance his church’s struggle for religious rights.

Patriarch Bartholomew, meeting with a group of reporters at his headquarters in Istanbul Sept. 28, said the visit also would underline the pope’s commitment to ecumenical dialogue at a time when Catholic-Orthodox theological talks are resuming.

The 67-year-old patriarch acknowledged that the pope’s recent speech in Regensburg, Germany, had caused problems with Muslims in Turkey and elsewhere, but he said that only intensified the importance of the upcoming papal visit.

“It’s an opportunity to cultivate dialogue and to remove misunderstandings. The circumstances at this moment make this visit more interesting, more necessary and more important than at any other moment,” he said.

He said Orthodox Christians are not looking to cultivate conflict and “don’t want to offend the Prophet of our Muslim brothers.” He also said he was convinced the pope did not want to offend Islam, either.

The fact that the Turkish government did not try to postpone the papal visit after the Regensburg controversy was a good sign, he added. Turkish Christians generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority, he said.

“In general, the pope is awaited in Turkey with joy and love,” he said. He added that he was certain the government would take all necessary security measures to guarantee the pope’s safety during the visit.

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople


Pakistani Muslims hold placards and chant slogans to condemn remarks by Pope Benedict XVI during a protest after evening prayers at a mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sept. 15. The Vatican responded to a wave of Muslim indignation over recent remarks by The pope, saying that he did not intend to “offend the sensibilities of Muslim faithful.”

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