The First Casualty of the Pope's Islam Speech

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Pope Benedict XVI prays at a papal Mass in Regensburg, Germany, September 12, 2006.

Pope Benedict XVI's controversial comments about Islam have already ignited a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world, but it may end up costing the Vatican more than just its reputation. A top Catholic Church official inside Turkey says the polemics following Benedict XVI's comments about Islam may cause the cancellation of his November visit to the majority Muslim country, which is nevertheless governed on secular principles.

"At this point, I don't know if the trip will happen," Mons. Luigi Padovese, the Vicar Apostolic in Anatolia, the Church's representative for what amounts to the eastern half of Turkey, told TIME. "There are leading politicians, members of the ruling parties, a top minister and others who have expressed a negative opinion on the visit." Padovese blamed the outcry on voices in the Turkish press whom he described as "nationalist, Islamist and anti-Christian," and said the Pope's intention was not to offend anyone. "I don't know if anyone even read the Pope's discourse," Padovese said. "These elements tossed out the bait, and others took it."

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• The First Casualty of the Pope's Islam Speech
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The sharpest rebuke inside Turkey came from Salih Kapusuz, the deputy leader of the ruling Justice and Development, or AK Party, who said that Benedict would go down in history "in the same category as leaders such as [Benito] Mussolini and [Adolf] Hitler." He told the state-owned Anatolia news agency that Benedict's comments were a deliberate attempt to "revive the mentality of the Crusades: He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages." He added that Benedict "is a poor thing that has not benefited from the spirit of reform in the Christian world..."

Asked if the Turkish authorities had made any specific requests of the Holy See, Padovese said that the only demands have come from the press. "There is a request that the Pope apologizes for what he said," says Padovese. "But I read into this request a kind of triumphalism — to see the Church and Christians and the Pope say out loud that they were wrong." Padovese spoke by phone from the parish in the Black Sea coastal city of Trebizond, where in February Father Andrea Santoro was killed by a young Muslim man in an apparently religiously motivated attack. Two other Catholic clergy members have been the victims of attacks in Turkey over the past several months. The Vatican said the Pope did not intend the remarks — which he made during a speech in Germany on Tuesday — to offend anyone. Benedict didn't explicitly endorse the statement, which recounted a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam. "The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the Pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'"

But heading into his triumphant visit this week to his native Bavaria, Pope Benedict XVI must have already had his subsequent trip somewhere in his thoughts. Just two months ahead of his first visit to a predominantly Muslim country, Benedict had decided to use a key speech at a German University to explore the differences between Islam and Christianity, and the risk of faith-based violence.

Whether or not the Pope imagined the furor his words would spark — and many would argue it wasn't hard to foresee — the Vatican's attempts at damage control may be a little too late. The speech has already elicited harsh denunciations from political and religious leaders from Pakistan and Iraq to Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. In Turkey, the home of Pope John Paul II's would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca, the comments struck such a nerve that they managed to erase old distinctions between conservative Muslims, including leaders of the ruling Justice and Development party, and secular nationalists in the country. Several Turkish MPs have demanded an apology. The head of Turkey's government-run religious affairs directorate, Ali Bardakoglu, said that before visiting Turkey in November Benedict "should first of all replace the grudge in his heart with moral values and respect for the other."

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