Benedict to brave protests over Turkey visit

Tens of thousands of protesters hit Turkey's streets to protest the imminent arrival of Pope Benedict in what will be the first visit by the reigning Pontiff to the secular Islamic-majority state.

Amid a sea of red-and-white Turkish flags and green Islamic bandannas, speakers denounced the Vatican as a centre of a Western conspiracy against the country and the Islamic world, the Age reports.

"You are the representative of evil," the main speaker at the rally, Recai Kutan, leader of the radical wing of Islamist politics in Turkey, said in comments addressed to the Pope. "We don't want to see you here unless you apologise."

The Vatican said he would visit Istanbul's 17th century Blue Mosque - his first visit to a mosque as Pope. But the gestures cut little ice with a crowd of some 30,000.

It has just been confirmed that the Pope will meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr Erdogan had earlier said he was too busy to see the Pope.

The Financial Times says that a number of senior politicians have found urgent reasons to be out of the country for much of this week. With a general election next year, Turkish politicians are wary of being photographed with such an unpopular public figure as the Pope.

"The government is simply afraid of the grassroots reaction," Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Edam think-tank in Istanbul, told the Times.

The Pope is disliked not only for his controversial remarks at the University of Regensburg but because he is said to oppose Turkey's bid to join the European Union, apparently on religious and cultural grounds, the Times says.

The Pope's visit has two distinct - and difficult - objectives: trying to calm Muslim ire, and advance efforts to heal a nearly 1,000-year divide in Christianity between the Vatican and Orthodox churches.

For their part, Turkish officials hope to use the visit to promote their ambitions of becoming the first Muslim nation in the European Union and showcase their secular political system.

But pro-Islamic groups - which have been gaining strength for years - perceive Benedict as a symbol of Western intolerance and injustices against Muslims.

During his visit, Pope Benedict is also expected to visit the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey and its leader from 1923-38.

Ataturk favoured a harsh policy towards minorities whether Armenian, Kurdish or Greek. That spawned a form of fundamentalism that is nationalist rather than religious.

The Times Online quotes former Vatican spokesperson,Joaquin Navarro-Valls, as saying that Pope Benedict will travel in an armour-plated car, with several similar vehicles used as decoys, after Vatican officials vetoed use of the "Popemobile" over security concerns.

Benedict plans to first meet with political and Muslim religious leaders in the capital, Ankara, including Turkey's president and the Islamic cleric who oversees Turkey's religious affairs.

The Pope then heads to Istanbul - the ancient Christian capital Constantinople - to be hosted by the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

On Sunday Pope Benedict expressed "respect and friendship" for the "dear Turkish people" and asked an enormous crowd of pilgrims gathered in St Peter's Square for the Angelus to accompany him "in prayer, so that this pilgrimage may bear all the fruits that God desires".

30,000 protest against Pope's visit to Turkey (The Age, 28/11/06)
Turks chant: 'No to the Pope' (The Age, 28/11/06)
Assassination, riot fears cloud Pope's Turkey visit (The West Australian, 28/11/06)
Pope: Pray for me during Turkey trip (AsiaNews, 26/11/06)
Turkish politicians head out of town to avoid Pope's visit (Euro2day, 27/11/06)
Turkish PM agrees to meet Pope (Courier-Mail, 28/11/06)
Popemobile gives way to armoured car on visit to 'minefield' (Times Online, 28/11/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople Papal Visit website

Istanbul man fires shots in suspected protest over Benedict visit (CathNews, 3/11/06)
Pope Turkey trip looking likely for November (CathNews, 8/9/05)

28 Nov 2006