Turkey's top Roman Catholic bishop has publicly accused Turkish ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics of being behind the slaying of the country's senior bishop.
Monsignor Ruggero Francheschini told a Vatican meeting Thursday that he was speaking out to correct the "intolerable slander" that had surrounded the slaying of Monsignor Luigi Padovese, the Vatican's apostolic vicar in Anatolia.
Padovese was stabbed to death by his driver outside his home in Iskenderun on June 3, a day before he was to leave for Cyprus to meet Pope Benedict XVI.
The slaying shocked the Turkish church and cast a cloud over Benedict's visit. It was the latest in a string of attacks in recent years on Christians in predominantly Muslim Turkey, where Christians make up less than 1 percent of the 70 million population.
Turkish officials have insisted the slaying was personal and not religious or politically motivated, and Benedict himself played down the motive at the time of the slaying, saying it was not a "political or religious assassination."
But Franceschini, head of Turkey's bishops' conference, told a meeting of bishops gathered to discuss the plight of Christians in the Middle East that Padovese was the victim of "premeditated murder" by the same forces that Padovese had denounced for killing a priest in 2006 and three Christians in 2007.
Francheschini said Padovese's killing was part of a "dark plot of complicity between ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics, experts in schemes of tension."
His comments appeared to be a reference to a series of ongoing cases against hundreds of hardline secularists in Turkey whom prosecutors believe are behind several sensational attacks, including on religious minorities.
Prosecutors say the accused have been trying to create an environment of chaos that would force the secular military to overthrow the Islamic-oriented government.
Some ultranationalists in Turkey also tend to be deeply religious and suspicious of Christians, whom they accuse of proselytizing and converting Muslims.
The polarizing topic of religion in Turkey stems in part from the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a war hero who founded the Turkish republic in 1923 as colonial powers divided up former Ottoman territories. He abolished the caliphate and its traditions of dress and language in favor of a Western, secular state.
In the Padovese case, the driver, Murat Altun, was arrested soon after the slaying. His lawyer, Cihan Onal, said Friday that prosecutors in Iskenderun are still investigating the case and it's not clear when they will issue an indictment.
While some church officials and diplomats have quietly said the murder seemed suspect, Franceschini's comments were unusual in their bluntness. He said he wanted to set the record straight to erase the "intolerable slander circulated by the same organizers of the crime."
Associated Press reporter Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara.