Pope warned to play it safe

Ankara, Turkey - Turkey has cautioned Pope Benedict against describing the Istanbul-based Orthodox Christian Patriarchate as "ecumenical", a foreign ministry spokesperson said on Thursday.

Turkey, a mainly Muslim but secular state, says the use of the ancient title "ecumenical" - which means "universal" in Greek - has political overtones that could undermine Turkish sovereignty.

Nationalists also suspect the holder of the post, Patriarch Bartholomew, of wanting to create a Vatican-style state in the heart of Istanbul, which as Constantinople was capital of the Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire until it fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453.

Pope Benedict used the word ecumenical in a speech during his four-day visit to Turkey that is aimed at mending ties between the globe's 1,1-billion Roman Catholics and 250-million Orthodox Christians as well as with the Muslim world.

"I'll repeat once again that the Patriarchate is a Turkish institution. We believe that is the position it has in our laws... We don't recognise ecumenism," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Namik Tan told a news conference in Ankara.

"This concern has been conveyed to the Vatican."

The Patriarchate says such concerns are completely misplaced. It says the title "ecumenical" has no political connotations and simply reflects Bartholomew's position as "first among equals" in the worldwide Orthodox Church.

Turkey usually refers to Bartholomew as the bishop of Fener, the old Greek quarter where his compound stands.

The Turkish state closed the patriarchate's seminary on an island off Istanbul in 1971.

Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek but a Turkish citizen, and the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join, want Turkey to boost non-Muslim religious minorities' rights.

Bartholomew also fears his flock of around 3 000 Orthodox Christians in Turkey, down from 180 000 a few decades ago, could eventually disappear completely because the Church is denied the right to train new priests here.