It didn't take long for Pope Benedict XVI to transform himself from one of Turkey's worst enemies to one of the country's best friends. Already on Wednesday, the pope was being given praise for his attempts to bridge the gaps between Christians and Muslims -- and mend the fence that he crashed through in September with comments that many Muslims took to be insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. His comments on Tuesday saying that Islam was a religion of peace was well received.
But that wasnt all. The pope came bearing a surprise gift as well: support for Turkish membership in the European Union. "This trip is important for Turkey's EU membership," wrote the daily Milliyet. "This is a big warning for conservative politicians who think the EU is a Christian club."
With pressure growing on Turkey on Wednesday to open up its ports to trade from EU member Cyprus by mid-December or face a possible freeze in its accession negotiations, support from any quarter is welcome. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on Wednesday did say, however, that Turkey still has time to "score a golden goal" before the meeting of EU foreign ministers on Dec. 11. Still, the atmosphere this week in Brussels has become increasingly critical of Turkey's intransigent stance.
Prior to the pope's trip, many had predicted he would have a difficult time in the predominantly Muslim Turkey. Security has been extremely high for Benedict and a detail of some 3,000 police are escorting him on his travels through the country. Prior to his arrival, some 25,000 protesters took to the streets of Istanbul to demand that he not come. In a speech in Germany in September, the pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor as apparently indicating that the Prophet Muhammad had only brought "things only evil and inhuman" to the world.
With foreign ministers across Europe on Wednesday putting the pressure on Turkey to give ground in the country's ongoing tiff with Greece and Cyprus, the pope suddenly seems one of Ankara's few friends.
On Wednesday, the pope embarked on that part of his trip devoted to Christian issues. He visited a shrine on Turkey's southwest coast where many believe Mother Mary lived at the end of her life before heading to Istanbul to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to discuss the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.