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.

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Turkey's ruling party is considered pro-Islamic and clashes frequently with the country's so-called secularists, including those in the military. Under Turkish law, for example, it is still prohibited to wear a headscarf in universities, hospitals and other public buildings, and the Prime Minister has been forced to send his daughters to study in the U.S. to avoid the ban. The staunchly secular military has on three occasions ousted Islamic leaders on the grounds that they were mixing politics and faith. But even Turkey's secularists joined in the condemnation of Benedict's remarks: "The Pope has thrown gasoline onto the fire in a world where the risk of a religious clash is high," Kaluk Koc, deputy leader of the nationalist Republican People's Party said.

The final plans were being made for the papal trip to Turkey, where he is scheduled to meet with the country's top political and religious authorities. Benedict's initial motivation for the visit is to celebrate with Orthodox Christians the Feast of St. Andrew, on Nov. 30. in Istanbul, which some Christians still call Constantinople. Most expect that he would also speak about the tensions between the Islamic world and the West on the visit. Assuming the trip goes through, one wonders if there will be more careful attention to how his message may be interpreted by Muslims. Still, Padovese says the Pope can't be blamed for the reactions of others. "There was no intention to offend anyone's sensibilities — and certaintly not to provoke any kind of war of religion. The Pope did not offend Mohammed," said Padovese. "But there has to be a freedom of expression. Within a dialogue among religions, one must set the confines. Dialoguing doesn't mean renouncing your faith or your point of view. Because we're not talking about something like the [Danish] cartoons. In fact, the Pope said the West is wrong when it offends and denigrates that which is sacred to people." Still Padovese said that while he was listening to the Pope's speech live on television, he knew there would be an outcry from some corners in Turkey. "For the anti-Christian elements, he offered them a good occasion."

Even before the current outcry, Benedict was already unpopular in Turkey for previous comments casting doubt on Turkey's eligibility to join the European Union, as it is now trying to do. Euro-skepticism and nationalism has been growing in Turkey in recent months as a direct consequence of the increasing resistance in Europe to the idea of Turkey joining the club. Now Benedict has stirred those feelings anew, and as a result, he's become about as welcome in Turkey as Turkey is in Europe.

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