ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) – Under a bright morning sun near the Aegean Sea coast, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Wednesday outside the ancient stones that some believe were once the home of the Virgin Mary.

He then walked slowly through a handpicked congregation from the tiny Christian communities across Muslim Turkey. They chanted “Benedetto” – his name in Italian – and reached out to touch his gold and white robes.

The pope had wanted to make this kind of pilgrimage last year – paying homage to Christianity’s deep history in Turkey and forging bonds with its modern caretakers.

But Turkish authorities demanded he include a state visit to the capital, forcing the Vatican to postpone the trip until this week. Then the pope’s remarks on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad turned the visit into a struggle to win back the respect of the Islamic world.

So after tense moments and carefully scripted comments on Tuesday in the capital Ankara – at the opening of his four-day trip – the pope finally smiled.

After Mass at the shrine of Mary in Selcuk, he playfully took a large Turkish flag from one of the worshippers.

“They say he’s an enemy of Turkey. It’s not true,” said Nuzafer Kalayci, a Christian from Istanbul.

But it wasn’t only about celebrating. The pope had some somber messages: paying homage to an Italian priest slain during Islamic protests and expressing sympathy for the pressures facing religious minorities in the Muslim world.

That could set the tone for the remainder of Benedict’s trip, which ends Friday. He is expected to sharpen his calls for what the Vatican calls “reciprocity” – that Muslim demands for greater respect in the West be matched by increased tolerance and freedom for Christians in Islamic nations.

But too much pressure by the Roman Catholic pontiff could risk new friction with Muslims after broad gestures of goodwill that sought to ease simmering Muslim anger.

A statement claiming to be from al-Qaida in Iraq denounced the pope’s visit as part of a “crusader campaign” against Islam and an attempt to “extinguish the burning ember of Islam” in Turkey. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the declaration – posted on several Islamic militant Web sites – shows the need for faiths to fight “violence in the name of God.”

He said “neither the pope nor his entourage are worried.”

The pope’s deepening ties with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I – called the “first among equals” of the Orthodox leaders – also is watched with suspicion in Turkey as a possible challenge to state-imposed limits on Christian minorities and others. Benedict has declared a “fundamental” commitment to try to heal rifts between the two ancient branches of Christianity, which split nearly 1,000 years ago over disputes including papal authority.

At Bartholemew’s walled compound in Istanbul, the pope stood amid black-robbed Orthodox clerics and urged both sides “to work for full unity of Catholics and Orthodox.”

The pope began the day at the ruins of a small stone home at the end of a dirt road near the Aegean Sea – the site where the Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last years.

At an outdoor Mass attended by 250 invited guests, the pope noted the challenges facing the “little flock” of Christians in Turkey.

“I have wanted to convey my personal love and spiritual closeness, together with that of the universal church, to the Christian community here in Turkey, a small minority which faces many challenges and difficulties daily,” the pope said.

Benedict went on to honor the memory of a Catholic priest who was slain in Turkey amid Muslim anger over the publication in European newspapers of caricatures of Muhammad.

“Let us sing joyfully, even when we’re tested by difficulties and dangers as we have learned from the fine witness given by the Rev. Andrea Santoro, whom I am pleased to recall in this celebration,” said Benedict.

In February, a Turkish teenager shot the Italian priest as he knelt in prayer in his church in the Black Sea port of Trabzon. The attack was believed to have been linked to outrage over the cartoons. Two other Catholic priests were attacked this year in Turkey, where Christians have often complained of discrimination and persecution.

On Tuesday, the pope urged religious leaders of all faiths to “utterly refuse” to support any form of violence in the name of faith. He also said religious freedom was an essential element of democratic values.

He sought a careful balance as he held out a hand of friendship.

and brotherhood to Muslims, and expressed support.

for measures that Turkey has taken in its campaign to join the European Union.

But winning over Turkish sentiments may be easy compared with the complexities ahead.

The legacy of Christianity in Turkey is a tangle of historical and religious sensitivities.

Turkish armies captured the Byzantine capital Constantinople – now Istanbul – in 1453 to begin a steady decline for Christians, who had maintained communities in Asia Minor since the time of the Apostles.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century, large numbers of Armenian Christians perished in mass expulsions and fighting. Turkey vehemently denies it committed genocide against Armenians, though many nations have classified the World War I-era killings as such.

Later, in the 1920s, Turkey and Greece carried out a massive population exchange under the treaty that established modern Turkey, with hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox sent to Greece and smaller numbers of Muslims going the other way.

Bartholomew heads the remnants of the Greek community in Istanbul that now number no more than 2,000 among about 90,000 Christians in Turkey.

They represent a powerful symbolic presence for the world’s more than 250 million Orthodox, which often denounce Turkey for placing obstacles in the way of Bartholomew and his clerics.

Turkey refuses to acknowledge the “ecumenical,” or universal, title of the patriarch and instead considers him only the head of the local Greek Orthodox community. The Turkish worry is that granting wider status to the patriarch could undermine the idea of a single Turkish nationality – a pillar of the nation’s secular system – and inspire demands for special recognition by minorities including Kurds and Muslim groups such as Sufis and Alevis, considered a branch of Shiite Islam.

Now, Turkish officials are concerned the papal visit and support for Christian minorities could embolden Bartholomew to press Turkey for concessions, including return of confiscated property and the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary that closed more than two decades ago after authorities blocked new students. The EU has also pushed Turkey for greater religious openness to help its faltering bid for membership.

“Against the backdrop of universal peace, the yearning for full communion and concord between all Christians becomes even more profound and intense,” he said at the ancient Christian site.

St. John the Apostle is believed to have brought the Virgin Mary there to care for her after Jesus’ death. Another belief maintains Mary died in Jerusalem.

Of Turkey’s 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 23,000 are Jewish.

AP writers Victor L. Simpson and Suzan Fraser contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-29-06 1603EST

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