Thousands rally to protest pope’s visit

Special to The Times

In the largest protest yet against the impending arrival here of Pope Benedict XVI, more than 20,000 Turks filled a town square Sunday to denounce the visit as an affront to Islam.

Emotions are running high in this predominantly Muslim nation over a speech the pope made in September that was widely construed throughout the Islamic world as an insult to the Muslim faith and the prophet Muhammad, on whose teachings it is based.

Amid tight security, youths waving red Turkish flags and brandishing placards, which read “Pope don’t test our patience,” chanted “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!) as speakers took turns condemning the pontiff for his remarks.


“The pope’s speech was a provocation. It is part of a devilish plan to prevent the tilt toward Islam,” said Recai Kutan, head of the Islamist Felicity Party, which organized the event.

Benedict is scheduled to arrive in Ankara, the capital, on Tuesday for a four-day pilgrimage that also will take him to a shrine to the Virgin Mary near Izmir and finally to Istanbul. Small but vocal groups of hard-line nationalists and radical Islamists have been protesting the visit.

This is by far the most problematic journey in Benedict’s 19-month-old papacy.

His primary purpose is to reach out to Istanbul-based Orthodox Christians, who split from the Roman Catholic Church 1,000 years ago. But because of reaction to the speech he made in Regensburg, Germany, the trip also is aimed at improving ties with Muslims.

In that speech at the university where he once taught, the pope linked Islam to violence and quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who disdained the faith. The comments provoked outrage in the Muslim world, and Benedict later apologized for the reaction -- though not the general message of his speech, which was that faith must be based on reason and not violence.

The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for membership for Turkey in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a “Greek agent” seeking to reestablish Christian influence in this country.

Wary of the public mood, Turkey’s moderate Islamic-led government has shied away from according the pope the level of hospitality customary for visiting heads of state. Many Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, will be out of town when Benedict arrives.

It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet Benedict before leaving for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Estonia.

Benedict, in an effort to placate his Turkish hosts, agreed to meet with the top official in charge of the country’s religious affairs at the official’s Ankara headquarters. The Vatican on Sunday announced the last-minute addition to the pope’s schedule of a stop at Istanbul’s landmark 17th century Blue Mosque.

Speaking at his weekly Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square, the pope said he wished to convey his “esteem and sincere friendship” to the people of Turkey, a nation “rich in history and culture.”

Also Sunday, Turkey’s Anatolian news agency quoted Benedict’s spokesman as saying the Vatican was not opposed to Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Father Federico Lombardi said that if Turkey met the EU criteria of political and economic reforms, there was no reason it shouldn’t be granted membership.

Before becoming pope, Benedict said he opposed Turkey’s inclusion in the EU because its Muslim character positioned it “in permanent contrast to Europe.”

Despite its ambivalence toward the pope, the Turkish government is mindful of the intense international scrutiny that his visit will generate and has been urging citizens not to be provoked into actions that would damage the country’s image.

Perhaps as a result, the turnout Sunday for the protest rally fell far below the 300,000 predicted by organizers.

“The Turkish people are proving they can behave maturely and responsibly,” said a senior Turkish official, who declined to be identified by name. “Let’s hope it lasts.”

Sunday’s rally originally was billed as a meeting to protest the “Ignorant and Sneaky Pope,” but organizers were forced to abandon the label after Turkish authorities denied permission for the gathering under what they termed would be a “provocative” name.

It ended peacefully, but not without raising concerns in Rome about Benedict’s safety. Turks made it clear at the rally that the pope would not be welcome.

“The pope is not here for dialogue,” declared Esra Keresteci, a 32-year-old homemaker. “He’s here to sow further disunity among Muslims,” she added, pausing to tuck a stray tuft of hair under a snug head scarf.


Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Rome and special correspondent Zaman from Istanbul.