Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Turkey today to start his first official visit to a Muslim country. The pope will travel to Turkey’s three biggest cities, Istanbul, Izmir and the capital Ankara, during his four-day stay. Although authorities will welcome him warmly, his arrival is not a matter of delight to thousands who protested against the visit of an ‘enemy of Islam’. 25,000 demonstrators lined the streets of Istanbul on Sunday chanting “no to the pope!” The protest was organized by the Saadet (Felicity) Islamist political party who see Benedict as a symbol of Western intolerance and injustices against Muslims.
Security forces are on full alert for the pope's visit. Nearly 4,000 police, including units in full riot guard, watched over the protest. According to Selcan Hacaoglu, a Turkish journalist with AP, Turkey has mobilised “an army of snipers, bomb disposal experts and riot police, as well as navy commandos to patrol the Bosporus Straits.” The pope will travel through the streets in a closed car, not in the glass-sided "popemobile" usually used on papal trips.
The pope's visit has two distinct objectives: firstly to assuage Muslim anger after his Regensburg comments and secondly to heal a thousand year rift between two branches of Christianity: the Vatican and Orthodox churches. Meanwhile Turkish officials hope to use the visit to promote their ambitions of joining the EU and showcase the country’s secular political system. Benedict’s first stop is Ankara where he will meet with political and Muslim religious leaders. Not among them is Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who is in Latvia to attend a NATO meeting for the first two days and then has “some important meetings” in Turkey for the last two days. Benedict will however meet two senior Turkish officials, the president Ahmet Necdet Sezer and its Ali Bardakoglu, the Islamic cleric who oversees the country's religious affairs. Bardakoglu recently told Reuters “the Pope is head of the Catholic world and maintaining good ties between the Islamic world and the Catholic world is in everybody's interests”.
After meeting the politicians in the capital, the pope then heads to Istanbul for the second half of his mission. There he will meet the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Of Turkey's 70 million population, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, and 20,000 are Roman Catholic. Despite the low number of adherents, Istanbul remains the spiritual home of the Orthodox Church. Then known as Constantinople, it was the Christian Byzantine capital for over a thousand years until it fell to Muslim forces in 1453 and became the seat of the Ottoman Empire.
Benedict XVI, spiritual leader of 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, has been on the defensive in the Muslim world for the last three months. On 12 September, he addressed an academic audience at the University of Regensburg in Germany which aroused Islamic indignation worldwide. In the speech Benedict mentions a conversation between an obscure 14th c. Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam. The pope quotes Paleologus as saying “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
The speech caused a hail of negative reactions across the Muslim world still smarting from the Danish cartoons controversy. In Somalia, a gunman shot dead an Italian nun, thousands protested at rallies in Iran, Pakistan and India, and in the Palestinian Occupied Territories angry mobs attacked Christian churches. Benedict apologised a few days later saying “these in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought”. In Turkey, protesters took to the streets but religious leader Ali Bardakoglu welcomed the Pope's apology, and described his respect for Islam as a "civilised position".
But Prime Minister Erdogan has not been so accommodating. Both sides have been playing down his decision not to meet with the pope. A Turkish official told Reuters that "if there was a possibility for a meeting, the prime minister would have met him". The Vatican says it was always aware a meeting between the two was unlikely. But Italian and Turkish media are treating it as a calculated snub. La Stampa accused Erdogan of "bad manners" while Turkey's morning daily Sabah claimed Erdogan was "escaping the pope." Erdogan’s Islamist party is based in Turkey’s rural community and many of his supporters are openly hostile to the papal presence. Erdogan is having it both ways by avoiding angering to his electoral base while also having an official excuse to avoid causing offence to the Vatican.