Vatican City: Pope Benedict XVI departs on Friday on a sensitive three-day trip to Cyprus, a visit likely to be coloured by shock over the killing in Turkey of a bishop who had been scheduled to meet with the pontiff.
Cyprus, an island divided between ethnic Turks and Greeks, is viewed by the Vatican as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. The pope`s visit is expected to be a key test of whether the pontiff has found his diplomatic feet after his linking of Islam to violence during a speech in Germany led to outrage in the Muslim world, and nearly forced the cancellation of a trip to Turkey in 2006.
His meeting with church officials from across the region could, however, be overshadowed by the death of Bishop Luigi Padovese, the church apostolic vicar in Anatolia, who was killed the day before he was to fly to Cyprus. Officials have identified the killer as the bishop`s driver and say it was not politically motivated.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said Padovese`s killing shows the "difficult conditions" the Catholic community faces in the Middle East.
The pope is meeting in Cyprus with prelates from the region to set an agenda for an October meeting in Rome to build a strategy to stem an exodus of Catholics from the Holy Land, Iraq and elsewhere because of violence and economic hardship. The Middle East includes ancient Christian communities.
The October meeting shows "how the universal church is in solidarity with this community”, Lombardi said.