Is Pope Benedict Heading for Trouble in Turkey?

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Pope Benedict XVI (L) is welcomed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) on his arrival at Ankara's airport, 28 November 2006.

Popes don't go on trips, they make pilgrimages. Pope John Paul II turned these spiritual journeys into worldwide media events, from his first return to his Polish homeland to the masses he conducted before millions in the Philippines and his Millennial-year arrival in the Holy Land. Though lacking some of the same flair, Benedict XVI's first four outings beyond Italian soil have largely followed similar pilgrimesque itineraries: warming up to a million young Catholics at World Youth Day in Cologne, paying homage to his predecessor in Poland, trying to turn back a wave of Spanish secularism in Valencia, and returning two months ago to his native German region of Bavaria.

But for his much-anticipated voyage to Turkey that kicks off Tuesday, Benedict trades in his Pilgrim-in-Chief hat for his helmet as the Roman Catholic Church's Diplomat Maximus. It is largely new terrain for the 79-year-old Pontiff, a trained theologian who spent two decades in the Vatican working on doctrinal matters. The terrestrial exigencies of diplomacy will touch on both geopolitics and inter-religious relations during the four-day visit, as Turkey is both 98% Muslim and the historic home of a competing Eastern branch of Christianity. Everything, of course, will be amplified in the wake of Benedict's now famous September speech about faith and violence that simultaneously angered much of the Islamic world and made the Pope an important new voice in the global debate on the simmering clash of civilizations. Though the word "Islam" may not appear in many of his speeches, it is undoubtedly part of the subtext of the entire voyage.

The first stated goal of the trip has always been to strengthen spiritual ties with Benedict's Orthodox counterpart in Istanbul, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the "first among equals" of the patriarchs of the Eastern communion. There are also some 30,000 of Benedict's own flock living in Turkey to whom he will be preaching in a pair of Catholic masses.

But there is no hiding the fact that this is, above all, a diplomatic mission. A meeting Tuesday in Ankara with Turkey's head of religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, will be a chance for Benedict to try to definitively close the two-month fallout from his provocative remarks about Islam and the prophet Muhammad during a lecture at a German university. Many have tried to predict what the Pope might say about Islam, but most Vatican sources assure TIME that the Turkey trip will most definitely not be the occasion for a provocative follow-up to his University of Regensburg speech. Taking a cue from his predecessor, Benedict will try instead to speak with symbolic gestures. He has sought and received a last-minute invitation for a visit to the historic Blue Mosque in Istanbul on Thursday. Vatican officials are hoping the visit offers visible proof of the "respect and friendship" for the Turkish people — and Muslims around the world — that the Pope has spoken of repeatedly since his crash landing back in Rome after the notorious speech.

The more interesting discourses may very well be about relations with the Orthodox, common Christian identity, and, notably, about Turkey's aspirations to join the European Union. There were signs over the weekend that the Pope may be planning to tweak the position he'd set out while still Cardinal in 2004, when he'd suggested Turkey's history and culture put it "in permanent contrast to Europe." Several top Vatican officials have said in recent days that they would welcome Turkey into the E.U. if it met all the requirements that have been set out by Brussels. This opening on Europe may help explain why, after having originally said it was impossible, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyiip Erdogan confirmed Monday that he would in fact meet Benedict on Tuesday afternoon at the Ankara airport, just before the Turkish leader flies off to a NATO summit. Still the most substantial achievements could be made in further healing relations with the Orthodox, a thousand years after the two churches parted ways. Many believe that Benedict can make more progress on this front than John Paul, who was seen by some Orthodox as too aggressive in trying to expand Catholicism into eastern Europe.

His hosts are taking no chances in preparing for events that may not be on the Pope's itinerary. The focus on security has sharpened after an anti-Pope rally by a right-wing Muslim group in Istanbul on Sunday, as well as an incident last week when dozens of protesters invaded the Sophia Hague, a former Orthodox Church due to be visited by the pontiff. Vatican officials say they trust the Turkish authorities to protect Pope Benedict, though all expect at least some form of public dissent. Sometimes, the choice of ground transportation can say as much about a papal trip as the homilies and handshakes. On his first four voyages, Benedict was able to wave to the passing crowds from his plexiglass-covered white Popemobile. In Turkey, he is expected be riding everywhere behind the black-mirrored windows of one of three identitical armored cars, much more a diplomat on a tense mission than a pilgrim on a celebratory journey.