12/01/2006, 00.00
IRAN – TURKEY – VATICAN
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Negative reactions in Iranian press over Pope's Turkey visit

by Darius Mirzai
Benedict XVI is accused of "Islamophobia" and collusion with Bush and Blair. The Pope's ecumenism is resented as a threat to Islam, but especially as a judgement on the bad relations between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and Iran.

Tehran (AsiaNews) – Discretion but also negative tones characterise coverage of the Pope's trip to Turkey in the Iranian press. By contrast, victimhood and triumphalism ("The Pope apologises") had been front and centre in almost every Iranian paper following Benedict's speech in Regensburg and his quote of Manuel II Palaiologos. "Spontaneous" street demonstrations were organised with some Muslim leaders criticising the Pope's "Islamophobia". Only former President Kathami and his successor Ahmadinejad had chosen not to criticise the speech.

This time the visit by the Supreme Pontiff in neighbouring Turkey received a limited coverage. Editorial pages, closely monitored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, rehashed what the Pope said in Regensburg but failed to report his clarifications ("the so-called apologies). The general impression conveyed by the press is that Benedict XVI is indeed "Islamophobic", or even worse.

Even though the Pope no longer calls himself by the traditional title of "Western patriarch", the Iranian press treat him as a clone (or ally) of Bush and Blair as if every US-British political move was in and of itself "Christian" or the Catholic Church only Western.

For reformist newspaper Iran News, "Islamic-Christian relations are at their lowest point since the Crusades" and the Pope's visit seen as "controversial and sensational", scorned by Turkish society.

In its front page, the Conservative Tehran Times wrote: "Dialogue with Islam or Christian alliance against Muslims?"

Both papers stressed the fact that Benedict XVI's visit was designed to strengthen Christian unity and gain greater room for Christians vis-à-vis the Turkish state.

The perplexity expressed in Iran's press towards Christian ecumenism and the whispered charges of anti-Islamic coalition can be interpreted in many ways. But perhaps it is some bitter jealousy. Unlike Christians, there is no ecumenism between Sunnis and Shiites, no attempt to bring about some kind of union; instead, there is a real and open war of religion amongst Muslims as Iraq shows.

In Tehran the situation is not much better. Christians have some churches, Jews have a few synagogues but Sunnis have no mosque that they can call their own.

For Sunnis who do not want to attend an underground mosque, the only possibility to worship is to attend Friday prayers in a foreign embassy (Indonesia, Saudi Arabia).

This might explain why Iran's Shiite leaders were not particularly pleased to see the expressions of brotherhood between Catholics and Orthodox or hear Benedict XVI's speech about the rights of religious minorities.

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