Thousands denounce papal visit to Turkey
Tens of thousands of protesters denounced Pope Benedict XVI as an enemy of Islam at a rally that highlighted the deep strains in Turkey before hosting the pontiff this week.
Chants of "No to the Pope!" rose among the nearly 25,000 demonstrators at every mention of the pope's 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, organised 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 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. "The Pope is not wanted here," said Kubra Yigitoglu, 20, who attended the rally in a headscarf, 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". Nearly 4,000 police, including units in full riot guard, 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: trying to calm Muslim ire, and advance efforts to heal a nearly 1,000-year divide in Christianity between the Vatican and Orthodox churches.
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. 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 Christian capital 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 the powerful Russian Patriarch Alexy II, have been wary of deepening ties too fast.
While in Istanbul, Benedict also plans to visit the famous 17th century Blue Mosque. The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend 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 centre.
Tradition says it was built to show that Islamic architects could rival the glories of the nearby Haghia Sophia, a former Byzantine church that was converted to a mosque following the fall of the city to Muslim armies in 1453.