Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey at the start of a four-day visit and, according to his hosts, immediately offered to back the country’s faltering bid to join the European Union.

If the claim is true, it marks an unexpectedly lively and political start to the visit, one of the most sensitive trips by any Pope in recent times.

The claim was made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, who had a 20-minute meeting with the Pope at Ankara airport. Mr Erdogan later told reporters: “

He said we are not political but we wish for Turkey to join

the EU.”

Much of the Muslim world, including Turkey, is still smarting from remarks the Pontiff made in September that suggested Islam was a violent and even irrational religion. That made him unpopular among many Turks, who also resented his well-known objections, on religious and cultural grounds, to the country’s EU accession.

If he has now changed his mind, it represents something of a coup for Mr Erdogan, who initially said he was too busy to meet the Pontiff but decided at the last minute to do so, after some criticism in the media. He has often cast Turkey’s EU ambition in overtly religious and cultural terms as an “alliance of civilisations”.

A Vatican spokesman later issued a statement that offered a more nuanced interpretation of what the Pope may have told Mr Erdogan. The Holy See had no power to influence political decisions, the statement said, but the Pope supported “Turkey’s integration into Europe.”

Still, Benedict got a lavish welcome on his arrival. Mr Erdogan, a one-time Islamist firebrand who served time in jail for his political beliefs, broke with protocol to meet him at the steps of the plane, and their meeting was said to have been warm.

The Pope said before leaving Rome that his visit was “pastoral” rather than “political”. In a speech after a meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, the spiritual leader of Turkey’s 70m Muslims, Benedict called for an “authentic dialogue” among religions “based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know each other better.”

Benedict also visited the mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, and met Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Turkey’s fiercely secular president.

On Wednesday he visits Ephesus, near where the Virgin Mary is said to have lived, before going to Istanbul to undertake the main task of his visit to Turkey – a series of meetings with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world’s 250m Greek Orthodox Christians.

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