Turkey should seek its future in an association of Muslim nations rather than try to join a European community with Christian roots, the Vatican's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in an interview distributed on Wednesday.

The doctrinal head of the Roman Catholic Church said Turkey had always been "in permanent contrast to Europe" and linking it to Europe would be a mistake.

He also told a French magazine that the European Union should continue to debate the issue of its Christian heritage, a discussion that appeared to be closed in June when the EU adopted a constitution that avoided any mention of Christianity.

Islamic heritage

A secular state with a majority Muslim population, Turkey has been introducing political reforms to bolster its bid to open entry negotiations with the EU, which is due to decide in December whether to launch accession talks.

"In the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe," Ratzinger said, noting that the Ottoman Empire once threatened Vienna and fought wars in the Balkans.

Turkey hopes its political reforms
will bolster its EU membership bid

"Making the two continents identical would be a mistake," he said. "It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of economics."

The German-born cardinal said Turkey "could try to set up a cultural continent with neighbouring Arab countries and become the leading figure of a culture with its own identity".

Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said this would not exclude cooperation between such a Muslim community and the European Union.

Both could work together to fight "fundamentalism", he added.

Europe mistaken

The cardinal said the Vatican supported the separation of church and state but thought the EU was wrong to ignore what he said was the historical fact that its heritage was Christian.

"We should continue the debate on this question because I fear that behind this opposition hides a hatred Europe has against itself and its great history," he said.

Asked about the force of secularism in France, which has recently banned Muslim headscarves in state schools, Ratzinger said "aggressive secularism" would provoke Muslims to become more religious, rather than counter it.

"There is a rejection of a world that refuses to recognise God or respect the sacred," he said.

"This loss of the sense of the sacred and respect for others provokes a reaction of self-defence in the Arab and Islamic world."