Thousands denounce upcoming papal visit to Turkey as tensions mount
Monday, November 27, 2006
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Tens of thousands of protesters denounced Pope Benedict XVI as an enemy of Islam at a rally Sunday that underlined deep divisions straining Turkey ahead of the pontiff's visit this week.
Officials hoping to promote closer ties with the West urged calm, but Islamic groups wary of Western ways are united in anger over a speech Benedict gave two months ago in which he quoted a medieval text that linked Islam to violence.
Chants of "No to the pope!" rose among nearly 25,000 demonstrators at every mention of his remarks on violence and the Prophet Muhammad. Many protesters wore headbands with anti-pope slogans and waved placards that included a depiction of Benedict as the grim reaper.
The protest, organized by an Islamist political party, was the largest mass gathering so far against Benedict's four-day visit scheduled to begin Tuesday -- his first papal journey to a mostly Muslim nation. The outcry also was designed to rattle Turkey's establishment.
Turkish officials hope to use the visit to promote their ambitions of becoming the first Muslim nation in the European Union and showcase Turkey's secular political system. But Islamic groups, which have been gaining strength, see Benedict as a symbol of Western intolerance and injustices against Muslims.
"The pope is not wanted here," said Kubra Yigitoglu, a 20-year-old protester wearing a head scarf, ankle-length coat and cowboy boots.
Nearby, a large banner was raised amid a sea of red flags of the Saadet, or Felicity, party. It called the Vatican "a source of terror."
Security forces are on full alert for the pope's visit. Nearly 4,000 police, including units in full riot gear, watched over the protest. Surveillance helicopters buzzed overhead and protesters were frisked before entering the square in a conservative stronghold of Istanbul.
The pope's visit has two distinct -- and difficult -- objectives: calming Muslim ire and advancing efforts to heal a nearly 1,000-year divide in Christianity between the Vatican and Orthodox churches.
Benedict plans to meet first with political and Muslim religious leaders in the capital, Ankara, including Turkey's president and the Islamic cleric who oversees the country's religious affairs. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to attend a NATO meeting in Latvia during the papal visit, but could briefly greet the pontiff at the airport.
The pope then heads to Istanbul -- the ancient Byzantine capital of Constantinople -- to be hosted by the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
The pope strongly backs efforts for closer bonds between the two ancient branches of Christianity, which formally split in the 11th century over disputes including papal primacy. But some Orthodox leaders, including Russia's powerful Patriarch Alexy II, are wary of deepening ties too fast.
While in Istanbul, Benedict also plans to visit the famous 17th century Blue Mosque. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, called it a "sign of respect" toward Muslims.
The mosque is one of the city's major tourist sites and its slender minarets are a prominent landmark in Istanbul's ancient center. Tradition says it was built to show Islamic architects could rival the glories of the nearby Haghia Sophia, a church that was converted to a mosque after the city fell to Muslim armies in 1453. It is now a museum.
Benedict may also use his time in Turkey as a forum to demand that Islamic nations offer greater rights and protection to Christian minorities, such as the remnants of the once-thriving Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul.
Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, said Benedict's visit could help "remove some misunderstandings" between Christians and Muslims.
"The messages the pope gives here will, of course, be very important," Gul said at a news conference.
But the protesters sent a loud signal that the pope is not welcome until he offers a full apology for his remarks in September, in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor characterizing some of Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman."
The Vatican has expressed regret for offending Muslims and sorrow for the violent backlash that included attacks on churches in the Holy Land. The intent of the remarks, the Vatican said, was to draw attention to the incompatibility of faith and violence.
"The pope was disrespectful to us and he needs to apologize," said one banner at the demonstration.
Seafetin Tuleg, 70, wrapped himself in the flag of rally organizers and said Muslims revere the Jewish and Christian prophets, but do not receive the same respect for their own. "We love Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, but the pope doesn't love Muhammad and Islam," he said.
Officially, Turkey is a rigidly secular republic, though around 99 percent of its population is Muslim.
In 2004 -- before becoming pope -- the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cast doubt on whether Turkey has a place among EU nations. "Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe," he was quoted by the French magazine Le Figaro as saying.
The Vatican spokesman, Lombardi, played down those comments Sunday in an interview with Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency, saying the Vatican was not against Turkey joining the EU if it fulfilled membership criteria.
Also at the Vatican, Benedict expressed his "feelings of esteem and of sincere friendship" for Turks and their leaders.
Associated Press writer Benjamin Harvey contributed to this report.