August 20, 2005

German politicians make pilgrimage to see Pope

By Tom Heneghan and Alexandra Hudson

COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's chancellor and his
challenger in next month's poll made pilgrimages to a Catholic
youth festival on Saturday to meet an election winner of a
different sort, their visiting countryman Pope Benedict.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who faces the voters on
September 18, was Benedict's first caller on a day due to be
dominated by the Pope's meeting in the late afternoon with
leaders of Germany's mainly Turkish Muslim minority.

One hour later, the Pontiff received Angela Merkel, the
Christian Democrat (CDU) leader hoping to unseat the Social
Democrat Schroeder to become Germany's first woman chancellor.

Merkel is ahead in the opinion polls and commentators joke
that the embattled Schroeder needs a miracle to win.

"We are all very proud to have a German pope," said Merkel,
the daughter of a Protestant pastor. She said they discussed
ecumenism and German and European politics.

Schroeder said nothing after the meeting, but they could
hardly have spent much time swapping campaign trail stories --
Benedict's election in April was a closed-door vote by 115
cardinals, a far cry from Germany's general election.

Their crowd-pull factors are beyond comparison. Benedict is
expected to draw up to 800,000 faithful for his closing Mass on
Sunday. Schroeder and Merkel often speak before fewer than 800.

The Pope's meeting with Muslim leaders in the late
afternoon was due to be the political highlight of the day.

The Pope, on a four-day visit for the Church's World Youth
Day festival, had friendly meetings with Jewish and Protestant
groups, but his talks with Muslims could be more strained given
his opposition to Turkey's bid to join the European Union.


Before becoming Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said Muslim
but secular Turkey should seek its future in an association of
Islamic nations, not with the EU, which has Christian roots.

Turkey had always been "in permanent contrast to Europe,"
he said in an interview last year for France's Le Figaro
magazine, adding that linking it to Europe would be a mistake.

Members of the Turkish Islamic Religious Authority, which
operates many of the mosques in Germany, and Germany's central
Islamic council will briefly meet the pontiff.

Around 3.2 million Muslims live in Germany, two million of
whom are of Turkish origin.

German politicians have begun to question the extent of
their integration, with conservatives in particular saying
multi-culturalism has failed and parallel societies are rife.

Germany has also taken a tougher line on Islamic extremists
and so-called hate preachers since the Sept 11 attacks on the
United States, in which three of the suicide pilots were
students who had been living in Hamburg.

Benedict said shortly after his election that he
appreciated the growth of dialogue between Muslims and
Christians both at local and international level.

One of the trickiest challenges he faces is maintaining
friendly relations with other religions, which he upset in his
previous job as Vatican doctrinal enforcer.

Rafet Ozturk, one of those due to meet Benedict on
Saturday, told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung: "It would be of
greater symbolic power if whilst visiting Cologne the Pope were
also to visit a mosque."