ATHENS, Greece – Ever since Pope Benedict XVI wandered into the religious crossfire between Islam and the West, the Vatican has been busy trying to retreat to calmer ground.
Hardly a week has passed since the pope’s explosive remarks in September on violence and the Prophet Muhammad without some gesture toward Muslims, including a private papal audience for Muslim ambassadors and a highly publicized message of unity for Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.
Whether the fence-mending means anything on the Muslim street may be answered when Benedict begins a four-day trip to Turkey on Tuesday, his first papal visit to a mostly Muslim nation.
It also may offer a window on the potency of hard-line Islamic sentiment in a country trying to convince the European Union that its cultural and religious heritage should not complicate its bid for membership.
No one expects a quiet visit for Benedict. There have already been protests, the largest of which was Sunday, when an estimated 25,000 Turks denounced Benedict as an enemy of Islam. The rally was in Istanbul, the ancient Christian capital of Constantinople where the pope plans to meet the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
On Wednesday, about 40 members of a Turkish nationalist party occupied Istanbul’s famous Haghia Sophia, a former Byzantine church and mosque, and chanted slogans against the pope.
Banners unfurled in Istanbul earlier this week depicted Bartholomew and Benedict as a two-headed snake.
“He’s coming to advance the ambitions of the Christian world. I don’t want him to come,” said Sadik Kar, a 43-year-old computer salesman, after prayers at an Istanbul mosque.
Ali Bardakoglu, who heads religious affairs in Turkey, urged a “civilized” response to the papal visit. “Even if we don’t agree with them, we always host our guests in a civilized manner,” he said.
In Turkey, Benedict is a target from two directions.
Muslim anger is still easily stoked from Benedict’s comments, in which he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor who characterized Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman.” The Vatican said the speech was an attempt to highlight the incompatibility of faith and violence, and Benedict later expressed regret for the violent Muslim backlash.
Many in Turkey also perceive Benedict as a symbol of resistance to Turkey’s EU ambitions because of his support for reinforcing Europe’s shared Christian bonds. The EU’s overtures have cooled considerably over questions about how to reconcile Turkey’s dual natures: a strongly secular government and Western-looking intelligentsia, but also widespread poverty and deep conservatism that is opening doors for more radical views.
“We see the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey as important,” said Bulent Arinc, the head of Turkey’s parliament. “It may be possible to correct some mistakes by coming together. You don’t shake hands with a closed fist.”
But it’s unclear how far the Vatican is willing to go.
Benedict is not inclined to the “grand gestures” of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and prefers a more methodical approach in tune with his background as a scholar and theologian, said John Voll, associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
“The pope is trying to build a real foundation, that’s theologically supported, for a meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Christians on issues such as faith and reason,” Voll said. “Don’t expect any big apology. From the Vatican’s point of view, they have dealt with it. They are moving beyond that.”
Yet that doesn’t mean Benedict’s trip is without possible fallout among Muslims.
He’s expected to draw attention to the treatment of Christian minorities in the Islamic world, including the vestige of the once-thriving Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. Earlier this month, an EU progress report on Turkey’s membership bid urged more steps to boost rights of non-Muslim religious groups.
Benedict’s visit also will revive memories of an Italian priest, the Rev. Andrea Santoro, who was killed by a teenage gunman in his church on Turkey’s Black Sea coast in February. The slaying came amid widespread protests over cartoons depicting Muhammad that were first published by a Danish newspaper.
The Vatican on Friday said Benedict is considering a brief stop at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. During a visit to Syria in 2001, John Paul became the first pope to visit a mosque.
“There’s much potential with this trip and much is at stake,” said Diaa Rashwan, political researcher for Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt.
“It could be an ideal opportunity to build fresh ties with Muslims since Turkey is considered as a kind of bridge between the West and Islam,” he said. “But it’s a very delicate time now. If the pope appears to disrespect Islam again, then it could be a step backward.”