NEWS

Mary’s shrine prepped up and locked down for pope’s visit

EPHESUS – Turkish authorities will impose a strict security clampdown on the House of the Virgin Mary, a Christian shrine near the ruins of this ancient Greek city and early Christian center, when Pope Benedict XVI visits today to celebrate mass. The shrine, where many believe Mary spent the last years of her life, will be the second stop on the pontiff’s four-day visit to Turkey, his first to a Muslim-populated country. It comes less than three months after he caused an uproar throughout the Muslim world with comments he made in Regensburg, Germany, equating Islam with violence. Authorities here said tight measures are in place to ensure security at the open-air mass Benedict XVI – the third pope to visit the shrine – will celebrate there along with about 500 Catholic faithful. «We do not have security concerns. We are taking measures against every eventuality,» including reinforcements and a security perimeter around the site, said Aziz Inci, the sub-governor of Selcuk, a small town in the Aegean province of Izmir just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the shrine. «We will not allow any visitors into the shrine on the day of the mass,» Inci told AFP as he supervised workers positioning benches and erecting iron barriers in a clearing on the site grounds in readiness for the mass. Their preparations broke the tranquility of the shrine, an unprepossessing stone building perched on a remote mountainside where pilgrims pray, sip from a spring whose waters are said to have healing properties, and leave messages and petitions to Mary on metal grates hung on the garden walls. «We have the capability to enforce security and we are getting reinforcements from other cities to place where we think we need them,» Inci said, but would not give any numbers. The faithful who will attend the mass were chosen on a strict, invitation-only basis among members of Turkey’s tiny, 28,000-strong Catholic community as well as members of the diplomatic corps, he added. Nationalists and Islamists in Turkey have been vocal in their opposition to Benedict XVI’s trip, which the government spokesman in Ankara, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, said on Monday he hoped would help heal the divide between Islam and Christianity. On Sunday, about 15,000 people – compared to the 1 million the organizers, a small Islamist party, had predicted – turned up at a rally in Istanbul, chanting «Allahu Akbar» and «Pope, go home.» Four days earlier, police in Istanbul detained 39 nationalist Islamist militants who held an unauthorized demonstration at the Hagia Sophia, a 6th century century Byzantine church that was transformed into a mosque in the 15th century and a museum in 1935. Benedict XVI will visit the Istanbul landmark the day after the mass at the House of Mary. «I wish these protests had not taken place, but they were small-scale,» said Noel Micaleff, president of the Association of Mary’s House, which prepared the guest list for today’s mass. «We have to realize that there are always people in any country who will demonstrate against heads of state such as the pope,» he told AFP. «It is in fact a great honor to have the head of the Roman Catholic Church visit our country, hold mass with our community and visit holy places such as the House of the Virgin Mary.» Before Benedict XVI, popes Paul VI and John Paul II visited the shrine in 1967 and 1979 respectively. Revered by Muslims and Christians alike, the shrine has an unusual and controversial history. The Bible says Jesus put his mother under the care of Saint John the Evangelist and some believe John brought her with him to Ephesus in AD 37, although many scholars say Mary died in Jerusalem. The house owes its discovery to an invalid German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who in 1841 published a book recounting her visions of Mary living in a small stone house near Ephesus. In 1891, researchers found a house that matched her description, which the Vatican subsequently proclaimed an official shrine and a place of pilgrimage for Christians. The shrine barely escaped destruction in a huge fire last summer that burnt 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of pine forest and stopped a few meters short of the building in what the Turkish press quickly described as «a miracle.»