Turkey says priest probably killed by lone gunman

Ankara, Turkey - Turkish leaders said on Monday the killing of a Catholic priest appeared to be the work of a lone gunman, but also signalled fears of a possible link with the rage sweeping the Muslim world over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Police have issued a sketch of the gunman who shot Andrea Santoro, a 61-year-old Italian, while he was praying in his church on Sunday in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. Turkish state media earlier gave the priest's surname as Santaro.

"We strongly condemn this incident... We believe it is the work of one individual. His motive should become clear in due course," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters.

A Vatican embassy spokesman in Ankara quoted eyewitnesses as saying the gunman, believed to be 16 or 17 years old, shouted "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is greatest", a common Muslim chant) as he shot Santoro dead.

Violent attacks on Christian clergy are virtually unheard of in Turkey, which views itself as a bridge between mainly Christian Europe and the predominantly Muslim Middle East.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan twinned the shooting with the anger rocking the Muslim world over cartoons published in Denmark and reprinted in other European newspapers lampooning Islam's Prophet, saying both could be seen as examples of intolerance.

"(The shooting) is extremely regrettable, especially after the recent developments in Denmark," NTV commercial television quoted Erdogan as saying.

"Above all, nothing about entering a place of worship to kill a priest is acceptable," he said.

Turkey, with a population of about 68 million, is overwhelmingly Muslim and has a tiny Christian population.

Pope Benedict expressed his sorrow over Santoro's death.

"I share the pain of the entire Church of Rome for the grave loss of such an esteemed and conscientious priest," the Pope said in a statement. "I hope that his spilt blood becomes a seed of hope to build an authentic brotherhood between people."

The Vatican has joined Muslim countries, including Turkey, in condemning the cartoons of the Prophet, saying freedom of speech did not mean freedom to offend a person's religion.

Turkey's non-Muslim clergy, including Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians, have also condemned the cartoons, which were first published in a Danish newspaper.

The Vatican spokesman played down speculation in the Turkish press that the priest may have been a victim of local criminals running a prostitution racket using foreign women.

"The gunman was a very young man, it seems unlikely he was involved in such business, although Father Andrea did occasionally give help to these women," the spokesman added.