By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 30, 2006; A14
ISTANBUL, Nov. 29 -- The European Union's executive arm on Wednesday recommended cutting off talks with Turkey on several key issues in its efforts to join the 25-country bloc, a day after Pope Benedict XVI expressed support for the predominantly Muslim country's pursuit of membership.
"We confirm these negotiations must continue although at slower pace," E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told reporters in Brussels. "There will be no train crash. There is a slowing down because of works further down the tracks. However, the train continues to move."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attending a summit of the NATO alliance in Latvia, called the recommendation by the European Commission "unacceptable."
The latest rift between the E.U. and Turkey came in the middle of Benedict's first papal journey to a Muslim country. The pontiff is using the visit to highlight secular Turkey's role as a bridge between the West and Islam. But the trip has come as tensions over possible E.U. membership have frayed relations between Turkey and its longtime Western allies.
Erdogan, who on Tuesday met with the pope for 20 minutes at the Ankara airport before flying to Latvia, said the pontiff had expressed support for Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, reversing the position he had expressed as a cardinal.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement noting that the pope has no official role in determining E.U. membership but that he "views positively" Turkey's attempts to join.
The European Commission recommended suspension of talks with Turkey on eight of the 35 crucial policy areas judged for E.U. membership. The decision followed the collapse of negotiations over Turkey's refusal to open its ports to vessels from parts of Cyprus controlled by the island's internationally recognized government.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the northern portion of the island in response to a coup d'etat that was supported by Greece. Today Turkey is the only country to recognize that zone, as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey refuses to recognize the southern section of the island; the entire island has been admitted to the European Union.
The pope is using his trip to try to improve relations with the Muslim world after a September speech in which he angered many Muslims by quoting a Byzantine Christian emperor who criticized Islam as embracing violence.
Within Turkey, the pope's first visit has received favorable reviews. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet declared in a headline Wednesday: "It started well."
A statement purportedly released by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to several Islamic Web sites Wednesday denounced the four-day visit as part of a "crusader campaign" against Islam and said Benedict was trying to "extinguish the burning ember of Islam" in Turkey.
Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the statement demonstrated the need for all religions to fight "violence in the name of God."
The pope spent the second day of his trip reaching out to Turkey's small Roman Catholic community and to the Vatican's centuries-long rival, the Istanbul-based patriarch of the Orthodox Christian church. The pope will spend much of the remaining two days as a guest of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
On Wednesday morning, the pope traveled up a dirt road on a forested mountainside near the Aegean Sea to say Mass in Ephesus, where many Christians and Muslims believe the Virgin Mary lived her last years.
In remarks directed at Turkey's treatment of Christians, Benedict said, "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."
He also paid homage to an Italian priest who was shot dead in February as he knelt in prayer inside his church in the Black Sea port town of Trabzon. His slaying by a Turkish teenager was linked to anger over publication in Europe of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Special correspondent Yonca Poyraz-Dogan contributed to this report.