VATICAN CITY, FEB. 19, 2001 ( John Paul II called on Turkish Catholics to play a role in their country´s future, despite their relatively small numbers.

He made his comments when receiving Turkey´s bishops during their every-five-year "ad limina" visit to Rome.

Christianity in Turkey dates back to the first ecumenical councils. But the faithful today account for 30,000 -- barely 0.2% -- of the country´s 65 million inhabitants, who constitute an absolute Sunni Muslim majority. The Catholics, who are divided in several rites, worship in about 50 parishes led by just a handful of priests and religious.

Yet Christians have a decisive role to play, as demonstrated in the new relations that the Ankara government "is preparing to establish with Europe," the Pontiff said.

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union. But officials in Brussels, Belgium, have made it known that Turkey´s entry into a united Europe will depend ultimately on the guarantees it gives to human rights.

John Paul II explained that, given this situation, interreligious dialogue acquires absolute priority. He added that there is no lack of points of contact with Islam, for example, in the formation of youth. The Church directs 26 prestigious schools for students of all social classes.

John Paul II recalled that Pope John XXIII enjoys unique esteem in Turkey, especially in the Muslim and lay realms. Over the last few months, Istanbul honored his beatification with several celebrations for the "Pontiff, friend of the Turks," a title that the future Pope merited during the years he was apostolic delegate in that country.

The Pope was clear regarding the challenges facing the Catholic Church in Turkey: the promotion of vocations to reinforce the presence of consecrated persons; the formation of the laity; and special attention to the family.