Tonight we are broadcasting from Istanbul, one stop on Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey. Istanbul is a fascinating place, a city where East and West meet, literally. It's the only major city that sits on two continents. One side is in Europe, the other side Asia.
I'm sitting in a modern hotel right now listening to the call to prayer echoing from a nearby mosque. The oldest cliche in the news business is to call a place a "land of contrasts." It's a silly term, but I understand why writers fall back on it to describe this place. Ancient and modern, Islamic and Christian, democratic and autocratic -- it all exists side by side in Turkey, sometimes uneasily.
Though its track record on human rights is often criticized, Turkey is a stable, pro-western democracy that is officially secular. For some time now, the country has been trying to become part of the European Union, but it seems increasingly clear that some European countries have major concerns. Turkey is a poor nation by European standards, and it's 99 percent Muslim. Many Europeans are already concerned about assimilating their own Muslim minorities. The prospect of having some 70 million more Muslims entering the EU seems overwhelming.
Before he was Pope, then-Cardinal Ratzinger didn't support Turkey's bid for EU membership. His argument was that Europe is based on commonly held Christian beliefs, not simply geography. Combined with his recent comments about Islam, it would be easy to see why many here would be concerned about his visit. But what is actually surprising is how few people here seem disturbed by the Pope's presence.
An Islamist party called for a demonstration in Istanbul on Sunday. They expected more than 100,000 protestors, but only about 20,000 showed up. There are some extremists here to be sure. I just spent the morning with an Islamist lawyer who is defending a number of Turks accused of participating in a series of terrorist attacks in 2003 that killed more than 50 people.
As we were putting the microphone on him, I couldn't help but notice the gun he was carrying on his waist. During the interview, he called Osama bin Laden a freedom fighter and explained why suicide attacks were justified under his brand of Islam.
He and the men he represents hate the secular government of Turkey. They say the current prime minister was put in power by an alliance between the Pope and Israel, or maybe it was the Pope, Israel, and America -- I can't remember for sure (I'll have to check the tape) but you get the point.
His beliefs do not reflect the majority of Muslims in Turkey, but they do explain some of the tensions that exist here. The question is: What will the Pope try to do during his visit? Will he try to mend fences, and focus on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity, or will he respectfully talk about the differences? While many people here don't seem all that interested in his visit, they will be watching and listening closely.
What do you think the Pope should focus on while in Turkey? I'm curious to hear your thoughts.