Pope Benedict XVI began a delicate mission to Turkey, trading conciliatory gestures with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as both sought to calm the storm unleashed when the pontiff appeared to link Islam to violence.
Whether the pope's visit will have a positive impact on religious dialog has yet to be seen
The pope, in a striking reversal of opinion, said on Tuesday that he backed Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
"We want Turkey to be part of the EU," Erdogan quoted Benedict XVI as telling him. Erdogan himself made a conciliatory gesture by personally greeting the pope as he stepped off his Alitalia plane at Ankara's Esenboga Airport, defying protocol that normally would have a minister of state serve this function.
The pope described his high-stakes visit -- his first to a Muslim country since his election in April 2005 -- as an opportunity for "reconciliation" between Christianity and Islam.
"The goal of this trip is dialog, fraternity, a commitment to understanding and dialog between cultures, to a meeting of cultures and religions in favor of reconciliation," the pope told reporters on the flight from Rome.
The pope will spend four days in Turkey
The trip is a controversial one in Turkey, amid residual anger over the September comments that triggered widespread outrage in the Muslim world.
In addition, the pontiff, seen as a defender of Europe's Christian identity, had already been dubbed the "anti-Turkish pope" for saying, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, that EU membership for Ankara would be "a grave error against the tide of history."
Erdogan had initially refused to meet the pope, pleading prior commitments.
A pastoral and political visit
The two spoke briefly at the airport VIP lounge under heavy security before Erdogan headed for a NATO summit in Riga and Benedict XVI went on the first stop of his tour, a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Benedict signed a visitors' book at the monument, writing: "On this land, meeting place and crossroads of different religions and cultures, junction of Asia and Europe, I am pleased to adopt the words of the founder of the Turkish republic as my own in expressing this wish: 'peace at home, peace in the world.'"
Erdogan, addressing his Justice and Development Party's group in parliament earlier Tuesday, said the pope's visit would contribute to "the alliance of civilizations and global peace." He gave assurances that the pope would be well received and criticized Islamist and nationalist groups in Turkey that opposed the papal visit as "marginal, specific and narrow."
The pope's visit was preceded by protests
The pope's four-day visit is taking place under strict security, tighter than that laid out for US President George W. Bush when he visited during a 2004 NATO summit, according to Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül.
The pope's stop in the Turkish capital will be purely political, with secular officialdom greeting him as the Vatican head of state rather than the spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
Later Tuesday the pope went to the presidential palace for an official welcome and a private meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
Turkish press hopeful
The 79-year-old pontiff will then visit Ali Bardakoglu, the director of religious affairs and secular Turkey's top religious official, who had harsh words for him after the pope's Sept. 12 remarks on Islam in Regensburg, Germany. Bardakoglu had accused Benedict XVI of harboring "hatred in his heart" for Muslims and said in an interview Monday that the visit, although "a step in the right direction," would not suffice to heal the hurt his comments had caused.
Tuesday's Turkish press was largely hopeful that the pope would succeed in building bridges and that Turkey would put its best foot forward in its bid to join the EU.
The pontiff also wants to foster better relations between the Orthodox and Catholics
The pontiff heads for more familiar religious ground on Wednesday, flying to Ephesus in western Turkey, to say mass at the location where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days. He then heads to Istanbul to meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, head of the Greek Orthodox Church -- initially the main purpose of the trip to Turkey.
In Istanbul on Tuesday, the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate said it hoped the pope's visit would help convince Ankara to enhance the rights of its followers, who are a tiny minority here.
The church, seated in Istanbul since Byzantine times, and Bartholomew I are encountering "some difficulties, to say the least," Archbishop Demetrios of America told a news conference.