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Spiegel pnline: Tolerance in Turkey: Catholics Want to Reclaim St. Paul's Birthplace - by Peter Wensierski

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Tolerance in Turkey: Catholics Want to Reclaim St. Paul's Birthplace - by Peter Wensierski

The Catholic Church is pushing for the construction of a Christian meeting center at the birthplace of the Apostle Paul in Turkey. German bishops are demanding tolerance for Christians in Turkey in exchange for their support for mosques in Germany.There is little left from the days when the town of Tarsus was not Turkish but part of the Roman Empire: a handful of columns, a few old walls -- and a house where, about 2,000 years ago, a man who would become a central figure in Christianity was born.

"I am a Jew from Tarsus," the Bible reads. The man who was quoted as saying these words went down in history as the Apostle Paul, who brought the Christian faith into the world.

Every year, thousands of visitors travel to Tarsus, which is near the Turkish-Syrian border. But Christians who wish to worship in the Church of St. Paul, built several centuries ago, must overcome bizarre hurdles to do so. A permit is required from the local authorities to celebrate mass in the church. In addition, worshippers are charged an entry fee and required to bring along the essentials -- from the altar crucifix to candles -- and then promptly remove them after the service. The church was used as a military depot for several decades, before the Turkish government suddenly declared it a museum in the 1990s.this year, which Pope Benedict XVI has declared the "Year of St. Paul," it will become a topic of public debate. In June, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will celebrate a mass in Tarsus. A number of German bishops also plan to travel to Turkey.

The Catholics are pursuing a politically explosive plan. Roughly 2,000 years after the birth of St. Paul, they want to get a Christian meeting center constructed in Tarsus. They have chosen an auspicious moment for the scheme. With Turkey vying for European Union membership, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can hardly afford to turn down a Christian project. In addition, the Church, especially the German bishops, is offering something in return. The Germans have often taken a benevolent stance toward the construction of mosques in Germany, a policy they intend to continue. In return, they are demanding tolerance for Christians in Turkey.

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