EPHESUS, Turkey (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI has begun the religious leg of his four-day visit to Turkey Wednesday by celebrating his first mass on Muslim soil at the Home of the Virgin Mary and making a fresh appeal for peace in the Middle East.
"Love and peace be with you," the pope said in Turkish at the start of the ceremony at the modest hill-top shrine outside the ancient city of Ephesus and about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the Aegean port of Izmir on Wednesday.
On a warm, sunny day, dozens of those among the hand-picked crowd of about 500 faithful saluted the pope waving Vatican and Turkish flags and palm fronds.
"From this edge of the Anatolian peninsula, a natural bridge between continents, let us implore peace and reconciliation, above all for those dwelling in the Land called `Holy` and considered as such by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike," the pope said in his homily.
"Peace for all of humanity!" he urged. "We all need this universal peace."
The 79-year-old pontiff, who arrived in Ephesus on the second day of a challenging four-day trip to mainly Muslim Turkey, added: "The Church is called to be not only the prophetic herald, but even more, the `sign and instrument` of this peace."
The pope recalled that the Virgin Mary, venerated by Christians as the mother of Christ, "is equally venerated by Muslims."
"The pope... said pretty much what we all have at heart," said Marina Bandirma, 56, an American married to a Turk and living in the nearby resort of Kusadasi. "I believe the pope might have helped bridge the gap (between Muslims and Christians). He left us with a nice, warm feeling."
Her husband Enver, 59, a Muslim, agreed.
"It was important to come here on such a special day," he said. "He is the spiritual leader of a billion people -- he is one of the most important people on Earth."
Asked about the pope`s controversial remarks in September equating Islam with violence, Bandirma was forgiving.
"He had already apologized after the September speech, but we didn`t understand it," said the retired engineer. "We saw today that he sincerely wants rapprochement with Muslims.
"I hope the seeds he has sown bear fruit."
Christians living in Turkey and abroad had gathered at the site as early as three hours before the mass, which began at 1000 GMT.