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The spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians cautioned Turks in an interview published Sunday against creating potential "unpleasant incidents" during Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to Turkey.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said in an interview in the Sabah newspaper that the pope's Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip was a great opportunity for Turkey, and he would tell the pontiff that the country belonged in the European Union, which Ankara has long sought to join.
The pope's visit to Turkey was born out of Benedict's desire to meet Bartholomew, who has his headquarters in Istanbul, once ancient Constantinople. The pontiff has been trying to foster better relations between the Orthodox and Catholics, and will meet privately with Bartholomew on Nov. 29.
Turkish authorities have said they expect protests against the pope, who angered Muslims by a speech he made in September in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor's remarks about Islam and violence.
On Sunday, more a dozen nationalists unfurled anti-pope banners during a conservative nationalist party rally in Istanbul.
"We don't want the pope in Turkey," read one banner; another depicted Bartholomew - a divisive figure in Turkey - and Benedict as the heads of a twin-headed snake.
Benedict has expressed regret that his remarks on Muslims had caused offense, and has stressed they did not reflect his personal opinion. He has also expressed esteem for Islam.
Bartholomew cautioned that if protests turn violent, they could cause problems for Turkey ahead of a critical EU summit in mid-December, where the EU leaders will judge Ankara's progress for membership.
"The pope has a say in all Catholic countries," Bartholomew told Sabah. "If there are psychologically unpleasant incidents, then this would be an issue in Brussels in December. Even if not at the official level, they would talk about it between themselves."
Bartholomew, however, said he would tell the pontiff that "it is not wrong for Turkey to become a member of the EU as a Muslim country because it would bring mutual richness."
"The EU should not remain as a Christian club," daily Sabah quoted Bartholomew as saying.
Bartholomew, a Turkish citizen, said the pope's trip was a great opportunity for Turkey.
"If it used badly, it would be harmful for Turkey's image," Bartholomew said. "While aspiring to be a member of the EU, we should avoid such an image."
Bartholomew, meanwhile, insisted that Turkey should reopen a Greek Orthodox theology school shut down 35 years ago.
Turkey has been resisting pressure from the EU to reopen the Halki Theological School on Heybeliada Island near Istanbul, which was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control.
"As Turkish citizens, we pay tax, we serve in the military, we vote and we want the same rights. But it does not happen," Bartholomew said. "If Muslims want to study theology, there are 24 theology faculties. Where are we going to study?"
The seminary trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including Bartholomew. Turkey does not recognize his international role and rejects his use of the title "ecumenical," or universal. It argues instead that the patriarch is merely the spiritual leader of Istanbul's dwindling Orthodox community.
"We've have this title since the 6th century. The word of ecumenical has no political content. This title is the only thing that I insist on, I will never renounce this title," Bartholomew said.
The Orthodox school issue is likely to attract attention during the papal trip.
The patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the 1,100-year-old Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, in 1453.
Benedict will also meet with Turkey's president and the deputy premier, as well as the head of the country's religious affairs, a top Islamic cleric.