.- The Turkish government denied on Wednesday that its leaders were "running away" from Pope Benedict by being out of the country during the pontiff’s scheduled visit next week, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1.
ANSA has reported that several newspapers in Turkey and the rest of Europe have said the absence of Turkey's top politicians is deliberate and possibly even a snub. They claim it is related to recent tensions between the Vatican and the Muslim world, caused by the Pope’s September speech in which he cited a Byzantine emperor’s comments on Islam.
Premier Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, and Religious Affairs Minister Mehmet Aydin will all be away between Nov. 28 and Dec. 1.
Erdogan and Gul will be in Riga Nov. 28-29 for a NATO summit. On November 30 Erdogan is due to hold a meeting of his country's Supreme Defense Council in Ankara. The religious affairs minister is now scheduled to attend meetings in Germany and the Netherlands.
A government spokesperson reportedly denied the media allegations and pointed out that Deputy Premier Mehmet Ali Sahin would welcome Benedict to Ankara Nov. 28.
It was also announced recently that the Pope’s welcome has been downgraded to a second-class protocol instead of a first-class protocol, reported Turkish agency Hurriyet. The ceremonial differences between the two protocols mean that there will not be 21 cannon shots fired and that fewer soldiers will be present for his arrival.
The Pope will also stay at the Vatican Embassy rather than in the Glass House in the President’s Çankaya Köşk, which is usually set aside for foreign heads of state.
The spokesperson declined to comment on reports that Erdogan, worried by comments in the press, was now trying to organize a last-minute meeting with the pontiff.
Some newspapers in Turkey have voiced fierce opposition to the pope's imminent visit and a radical Islamic party, Saadet, is organizing a protest on Sunday. Other protests have taken place in recent weeks.
Benedict was invited to Turkey last year by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. And the visit was originally intended as a way of building bridges with the Orthodox Church. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, is based in Istanbul and will meet the pope three times over two days.
"I hope he [the Pope] speaks out in favor of the Catholics who live here but also in favor of all the minorities, who do not constitute a risk for the country but an enrichment of it," he said in an interview with Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana.
There are about 35,000 Catholics living in Turkey.