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Pope is heading to divided Cyprus

The trip starts Friday. The island's tensions are not on his agenda, but could be hard to ignore.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI, often under fire for political missteps on foreign trips, is heading into a potential diplomatic storm when he visits Cyprus this week, a pilgrimage to a divided island that could anger Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world.

Divisions between Greeks and ethnic Turks, splits in the Orthodox Christian community, and concerns over damaged Christian and Muslim houses of worship will come under scrutiny during Benedict's three-day trip starting Friday. The visit will be a key test of whether he has found his diplomatic feet.

The pope's linking of Islam to violence during a speech in Germany led to outrage in the Muslim world, nearly forcing the cancellation of a trip to Turkey in 2006. Other controversies arose from his remarks on a trip to Africa that condoms can make the continent's AIDS epidemic worse.

The Cyprus trip comes just days after the island's leaders - Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and the newly elected president of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Dervis Eroglu - resumed peace talks after a two-month pause.

Cyprus police say that although they are aware of possible protests by some religious groups against the pope's trip, there have been no credible threats to his safety. "We are continuing our planning regarding the pope's safety and all necessary measures will be taken," police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos said.

Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in the north in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it and maintains 35,000 troops there.

Officially, the island's division is not on the pope's agenda. Benedict has no plans to visit northern Cyprus. Instead, the trip was designed around Cyprus' location as a bridge to the Middle East. Benedict will meet with leaders from Catholic churches in the region to draw up proposals for a major meeting of Middle Eastern bishops at the Vatican in October.

Still, it will be hard to ignore Cypriot tensions, and the pope on Sunday appeared to anticipate that atmosphere when, during his remarks to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, he asked for "prayers for the peace and prosperity of all the people of Cyprus."

The Cypriot ambassador to the Holy See, George F. Poulides, said Benedict would stay at the Vatican Nunciature, right on the so-called Green Line in Nicosia - the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone separating the ethnically divided communities. "This is a historic trip, the first time a pope is visiting Cyprus," Poulides said.

But the Turkish Embassy to the Holy See said it regretted the pope would not visit the north, insisting he would be welcome there.

There are other problems, including the break between Cypriot Catholics and Orthodox Christians, who are dominant in the south. Some hard-line Orthodox clerics, who view the pope as a heretic, say Benedict should stay in Rome to avoid provoking the island's 800,000 Orthodox. Benedict on Sunday said he was "making an apostolic journey to Cyprus, to meet and pray with the Catholic and Orthodox faithful there."

Religious and political differences caused the Orthodox and Catholic churches to formally split in the 11th century. Officials from both churches have engaged in talks in recent years to heal the schism, but opposition to reconciliation still lingers.