Pope Francis calls for dialogue to end extremism on Turkey visit

ANKARA (AFP) - Pope Francis on Friday called for dialogue between faiths to end the Islamist extremism plaguing the Middle East as he visited Turkey for his first visit to the overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular state.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who welcomed Pope Francis as the first foreign dignitary to his controversial new presidential palace outside Ankara, for his part issued a strong warning about rising Islamophobia in the world.

The visit of the Pope is seen as a crucial test of Francis' ability to build bridges between faiths amid the rampage by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants and concerns over the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

"Sadly, to date, we are still witnessing grave conflicts. In Syria and Iraq, particularly, terrorist violence shows no signs of abating," the Pope said after talks with Erdogan.

"Inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue can make an important contribution... so that there will be an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism," the leader of the world's Roman Catholics added.

Speaking in an overwhelmingly Muslim country which has a tiny but culturally significant Christian minority, the pope pointedly said all faiths should share the same rights.

"It is essential that all citizens - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties."

Turkey's own Christian community is tiny - just 80,000 in a country of some 75 million Muslims - but also extremely mixed, consisting of Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Franco-Levantines, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans.

Erdogan has long been accused by opponents of seeking to erode Turkey's secular foundations with creeping Islamisation.

But he also presents himself as a friend of the country's extremely small but varied non-Muslim minorities.

He chose the occasion to make a characteristically strong-worded warning against growing Islamophobia in the world, which he warned risked further dividing Muslims and Christians.

"Islamophobia is rising seriously and rapidly. We must work together against the threats weighing on our planet - intolerance, racism and discrimination," said Erdogan.

FIRST PALACE GUEST

The security of the Pope - who looked tired and at times distant during the visit - is paramount for the Turkish authorities.

The streets of Ankara appeared deserted of well-wishers as his motorcade whizzed through, in stark contrast to the close contact with crowds that have been such a feature of the past trips.

Some 2,700 police supervised his visit in Ankara, a number that will rise to 7,000 for the last two days of the trip in Istanbul.

There had been calls on the Pope not to meet Erdogan at his vast presidential palace which has 1,000 rooms, costing no less than US$615 million (S$798 million) to build and seen by critics as an authoritarian extravagance.

The Pope was welcomed with an honour guard before the doors to the gigantic edifice swung open and he walked inside with the President.

But trip appears less controversial than the last by a pontiff to Turkey - the visit by Pope Francis' predecessor Benedict XVI in 2006 which was overshadowed by remarks he had previously made deemed to be anti-Islamic.

'MORAL OBLIGATION'

The 77-year-old Argentine will move to Istanbul on Saturday and Sunday, visiting key sites of the city's Byzantine and Ottoman heritage as well as meeting the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

A subject of keen attention will be the Pope's visit in Istanbul Saturday to the Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church that was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and now serves as a museum.

His every gesture will be scrutinised later in the day when he visits the Sultan Ahmet mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, one of the greatest masterpieces of Ottoman architecture.

When Benedict XVI visited the mosque in 2006, he assumed the Muslim attitude of prayer and turned towards Mecca in what many saw as a stunning gesture of reconciliation.

The Pope addressed the problems of the 1.6 million refugees from the Syria conflict being hosted by Turkey, although a previously rumoured visit to a refugee camp no longer appears to be on the cards.

"The international community has the moral obligation to assist Turkey in taking care of these refugees," Francis said alongside Erdogan.

In his talks with Bartholomew I - the "first among equals" of the world's estimated 300 million Orthodox believers - the Pope will seek to narrow the schism between the two Churches that dates back to 1054.

Papal visits to Turkey are still a rarity - Francis will be just the fourth pope to visit the country after Benedict in 2006, John Paul II in 1979 and Paul VI in 1967.