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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Vatican Calls Turkey Trip a Critical Test

Vatican Official Calls Pope's Visit to Turkey a Critical Test of Christian-Muslim Relations

AP Religion Writer

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil Feb 15, 2006 (AP)— A planned papal trip to Turkey will be a critical test of Christian-Muslim relations, a top Roman Catholic official said Wednesday, citing a priest's slaying that a Vatican newspaper has linked to protests over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

"Now (the trip) becomes very serious," Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican's office for Christian unity, told The Associated Press during a gathering of Christian leaders and envoys hosted by the World Council of Churches.

Kasper also suggested Pope Benedict XVI could use his scheduled visit in November to press Turkey to lessen restrictions on Christian churches and schools. The Vatican announced the trip Benedict's first to a Muslim country just days after the Feb. 5 killing of an Italian priest, the Rev. Andrea Santoro, in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.

Santoro's death "is a shock also for Turkey to open itself a little bit to Christians," Kasper said. "I think this could be reason to reflect about it and have more openness to other religions."

The 60-year-old priest was shot twice in the back while praying in his church. Witnesses say the killer screamed "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great," before opening fire. A 16-year-old boy has been charged with the slaying, but Turkish authorities have not formally linked the attack with the worldwide protests over the caricatures of Muhammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper.

However the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, described Santoro's death as part of the violent fallout from the cartoons. At Santoro's funeral, the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, said Santoro's slaying had "all the elements which constitute Christian martyrdom."

Kasper also was critical of an Iranian newspaper for soliciting cartoons about the Holocaust as a response to the Muhammad drawings, saying it fuels the "clash of civilizations."

"There are fundamental rights of freedom, but also respecting the other," he said. "These must be brought in an adequate balance."

Improving contact with Islam has become a central theme of the World Council of Churches' biggest gathering in nearly a decade bringing together its membership of mainline Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox churches covering more than 500 million followers. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member, but cooperates on many levels.

The Vatican also is using the meeting to promote efforts to close the nearly 1,000-year break with Orthodox churches. The two branches of Christianity separated over disagreements including papal authority.

One of major obstacles has been the firm resistance of the powerful Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II to meet with the pope. The Russian Church has led Orthodox criticism of Eastern Rite churches, which follow most Orthodox practices but are loyal to the Vatican. Alexy and others accuse the Vatican of using the churches to lure away followers in traditionally Orthodox regions.

Kasper said he plans informal meetings in Brazil with Russian Orthodox delegates, led by Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the Russian Orthodox external relations department. In November, Benedict will be hosted in Istanbul by Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox.

"We would like to have such a meeting between (Alexy) and the pope, but the position of the patriarch of Moscow is still the same," Kasper said.

He said there are no discussions about a possible papal trip to Russia, but "we hope in the future it could be possible."

Kirill said the Russian Church plans to host a meeting of representatives from all major faiths in Moscow before the Group of Eight summit in July in St. Petersburg. The Vatican will be represented "at a very high level, but not by the pope himself," he said.

He said the religious leaders hope to present a document to G-8 leaders examining "how to balance religious values and secular values." Kirill said the issues to be studied include last year's riots in France and Muslim outrage over the Muhammad cartoons.

The Russian prelate noted that Russian clerics view Benedict as "very positive" toward the Orthodox and suggested Alexy would consider a meeting "if the conditions are right."

"I think we have very good conditions to develop bilateral relations," he said. "The pope is very much interested in dialogue with the Orthodox."

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