ANKARA, Turkey – Pope Benedict XVI called for an “authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims” and praised his Turkish hosts Tuesday as he began what’s surely his most controversial journey since he was elevated to lead the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics in April 2005.

The pope didn’t directly address the anger he set off in September when he quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying that in Islam, “you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his (the prophet Muhammad’s) command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

But it was clear that those words weren’t forgotten. Turkey’s president of religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, bluntly told the pope at a joint appearance that Western leaders were distorting Islam’s message as a religion of peace.

“Prejudices are nourished mostly by historical fears and concerns,” said Bardakoglu, who in September accused the pope of “having hatred in his heart” for Muslims. “The establishment of universal peace is based on the fact that we, men of religion and religious institutes, should not be the slaves of such prejudices, nourished by such fears and concerns, and we should act with common sense.”

Sitting on the stage next to Bardakoglu, Benedict XVI didn’t react to the statement.

But he did retract comments he’d made as a cardinal in 2004, when he openly and frequently opposed Turkish membership in the European Union, saying that he now favored it. In a goodwill gesture, he signed the Golden Book at the memorial to modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, noting that he was proud to quote Ataturk by writing, “Peace at home, peace abroad.”

Later, he tried to calm Muslim anger in remarks to diplomats at the Vatican Embassy: “I wish to reiterate my great esteem for Muslims, encouraging them to continue to work together, in mutual respect, to promote the dignity of every human being and the growth of a society where personal freedom and care for others provide peace and serenity for all.” The pope said the purpose of this trip was “dialogue, brotherhood and reconciliation” after a tumultuous period in Christian-Muslim relations.

The pope’s visit drew little attention in a country in which fewer than 100,000 people are Christians and fewer still are Catholic. Unlike Pope John Paul II’s trip here in 1979, no well-wishers lined the route, jostling to catch a glimpse of the leader of the world’s largest religion.

Protesters were few, too.

While Benedict visited the Ataturk Memorial, a small group gathered several blocks away. On the streets of the city, there was some hostility: taxi driver Yilmaz Kulum, 49, said he wished the pope hadn’t come.

“I don’t want him in Turkey because he criticised the prophet Muhammad,” he said. “His words disturbed my conscience.”

Kezban Turkoglu, 32, a secretary in a hijab, the head scarf that’s the sign of a very religious woman in largely secular Turkey, wished that the pope simply would apologize for his comments in September.

“He mentions common values, but this is not enough,” she said.

But just as many people seemed to share the view of businessman Ertan Kuscu, 38: “I don’t like him, but he is more than welcome if this serves as an advertisement for Turkey.”

While preparing to meet the pope at the airport, before flying to the NATO summit that he’d said would make it impossible to meet, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was essential to show hospitality during the pope’s four-day visit.

“If we behave improperly, if someone tries to convert this to political rant, we will lose,” he said. “We will think and calm down.”

Tuesday was the most political day of the visit. On Wednesday, the pope leaves Ankara for Ephesus, which is believed to have once been home to Mary, Jesus’ mother. From there, he’ll go to Istanbul to meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, the so-called first among equals of leaders in the Eastern Orthodox churches, which split with the Catholic Church 1,000 years ago over theological issues and the power of the pope.

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