Tensions as Benedict prepares to step into religion's faultline

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ST SOPHIA is a place of dizzying magnificence. One of the most sacred sites in Christendom for almost a millennium, then a mosque for almost 500 years, the Byzantine masterpiece is today a museum that testifies to centuries of feuding between Christianity, Islam and secularism.

So when Pope Benedict XVI takes to the Istanbul tourist trail on Thursday to admire the mosaics under the soaring dome of the sixth-century basilica, it will be the most delicate moment of the most sensitive trip the 79-year-old Bavarian has made.

Four days in Turkey will pitch the pontiff into the eye of the storm he churned up in September, when he linked Islam and the prophet Muhammad with violence and inhumanity as a force of unreason.

And the eight minutes he is to spend in the cavernous St Sophia on Thursday afternoon will be watched and weighed for signals of the Vatican's true intent towards Turkey and, more crucially, the world's Muslims.

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