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On visit to Turkey, pope to meet Islamic cleric who denounced him

Updated:
VATICAN CITY (AP) The pope's upcoming trip to Turkey will include a meeting with a Muslim cleric who was one of the first to denounce Benedict XVI for his remarks on Islam and violence, the Vatican said Saturday.

The November 28-December 1 pilgrimage was born out of Benedict's desire to meet with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as the pope pursues closer relations with other Christian denominations.

But Benedict's first papal visit to a Muslim country quickly turned into a test of Catholic-Muslim relations after his September 12th speech provoked an outcry in the Muslim world. The pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor describing Islam as a religion spread by the sword.

One of the first to denounce Benedict's speech was Turkey's president for religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, a top Islamic cleric who said criticism of Islam threatened world peace. Benedict and Bardakoglu will meet within hours of the pope's arrival in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The pope will also deliver a speech during his encounter with the cleric, the Vatican said.

Benedict has offered his regrets that his speech caused offense and has stressed that the quotes did not reflect his personal opinion. He has also expressed esteem for Islam.

Immediately after arriving in Ankara, the pope will visit the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revered by Turks who share his fierce dedication to secularism.

Concerns have been growing about the rising profile of Islam in the predominantly Muslim but officially secular country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worried secularists by supporting religious schools and speaking out against restrictions on wearing Islamic-style head scarves in government offices and schools.

On Saturday, Erdogan was booed by thousands at the funeral of the late Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, an ardent secularist. Erdogan's government denies it has an Islamic agenda.

Erdogan has said he will not be meeting with the pope because he will be attending a NATO summit in Latvia. He had denied trying to avoid an encounter with Benedict, who will meet with Turkey's deputy premier.

Benedict will spend much of it in ceremonies and meetings with Orthodox leaders. He will meet with Bartholomew I in Istanbul on November 29th, and pray at the patriarchal Church of St. George that day.

The visit was timed to coincide with the November 30th feast of the Orthodox Saint Andrew, considered the father of the patriarchate of ancient Constantinople, now Istanbul.

On November 30th, Benedict will meet with other Christian leaders: Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II, who is based in Istanbul, and Assyrian Metropolitan Yusef Cetin.

Benedict will also meet Turkey's chief rabbi while in Istanbul, where two synagogues were destroyed in twin suicide bombings in November 2003.

On his last evening in Turkey, the pope will dine with Catholic clerics. In February, an Italian priest was slain as he prayed in his church in the Black Sea town of Trabzon, and a 16-year-old Turk was charged with the murder.
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