Germany plays down new pope's objections to Turkey joining EU

German President Horst Koehler on Friday played down concerns that the new pope would object to Turkey's possible membership in the European Union and said citizens of the 25-nation bloc should decide the issue.

Pope Benedict XVI, before being elected pontiff, pushed for Europe to rediscover its Christian roots while suggesting that Turkey's bid for EU membership may be incompatible with the continent's culture.

"This voice of the pope is not going to harm us," Koehler said in the Finnish capital. "I'm extremely glad that the pope emphasizes that Europe has Christian roots," he said, but added that Europe is also based on other values, "like humanism."

Koehler said EU citizens should decide the issue.

His views were echoed by Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who hosted Koehler's official visit, at a joint news conference in the presidential palace.

"I agree totally that it's important what the citizens of the EU think," Halonen said. "Certainly, the pope's view will have an effect, but so will too the opinions of the United States and the people of Asia."

The two presidents met before two days of talks they were to attend with three other EU presidents: Jorge Sampaio, of Portugal; Heinz Fischer of Austria, and Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

The five presidents were scheduled to discuss globalization, Europe's competitiveness and the bloc's neighbors at an informal meeting, the second since Sampaio initiated the gatherings in 2003 between six countries. Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski canceled his visit to Helsinki because of the pope's initiation.

Koehler arrived in Finland with his wife, Eva Luise, who had her own program of visiting schools and attending an evening concert.

After meeting Halonen, Koehler held talks with Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and visited Parliament. He also laid a wreath at a local cemetery.

It was Koehler's first official visit to Finland. The previous German presidential visit, by Johannes Rao, on Sept. 11, 2001, was cut short because of the terror attacks on New York and Washington.

MATTI HUUHTANEN, Associated Press Writer

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