Turks whip up storm of disapproval over Pope's Istanbul visit

Pope Benedict was given another warning yesterday of what lies ahead for him in Turkey when more than 20,000 people demonstrated against his coming visit in central Istanbul and urged him to stay at home.

Huge banners stretched across the road screamed "Papa Gelmesin" - "The Pope should not come"- and placards carried caricatures of the Pope and his Christian Orthodox counterpart Bartholomew I scheming together to recreate the Byzantine empire - all signs of the paranoid fear that campaigners against the visit are stirring up.

"The Crusades - what a very peaceful walk!" said one placard; another, "The Pope - the man who stuck out his tongue at the Prophet Mohamed and Islam."

The demonstration, which was peaceful, was the latest in a series of protests against the visit, which begins in Ankara tomorrow. First a man fired a gun outside the Italian consulate in Istanbul and yelled that he wanted to strangle the Pope. Last week, members of the so-called Grey Wolves, the Nationalist Movement Party to which Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who tried to assassinate Benedict's predecessor in 1981, belongs, invaded Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral-turned-mosque-turned museum in Istanbul, and ostentatiously prayed (which is forbidden) in protest.

The Pope's first visit to a majority Muslim country was never going to be straightforward, but the pontiff made it much more difficult for himself in September when, during an address in the German city of Regensburg, he quoted a 13th-century Byzantine emperor as describing Islam as "evil and inhuman" because it countenanced conversion by the sword. After Ali Bardakoglu, director of Turkey's Department of Religious Affairs, drew attention to the insult, the chorus of anger rose to a crescendo. Ali Bardakoglu is the first important Turk the Pope will meet.

"Pope Benedict XVI ... alienated a billion Muslims with his speech," wrote one Turkish columnist. In Turkey "he will find very few real sympathisers ... and a lot of non-welcomers".

Yesterday's protest was organised by the Sadat ("Happiness") party, an Islamist group from which the party that rules Turkey today, the Justice and Development Party, split away during the 1990s. Today Happiness is a marginal player in Turkish politics, gaining only 3 per cent of votes at the last election. But opponents of the visit comprise a broad coalition, from Islamists to secular nationalists.

The decision by the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, not to meet the Pope - he will be away at a Nato summit - shows how much of a hot potato the visit has become. The tension and hostility is partly Benedict's fault, but it is largely the result of a very ugly history. When Pope Paul VI visited in 1965, he became the first pope to come to Istanbul in nearly a millennium.

The Crusades, especially the Fourth, during which Crusaders killed, cooked and ate the population of a village in their path, convinced Muslims and Orthodox Christians that the Christians of the West were malign barbarians. The privileges for Christians extracted by the great powers early in the 20th century and plans to divide Turkey between Greeks, French and Italiansconfirmed the opinion.

During his Sunday words to the crowd in St Peter's Square yesterday, the Pope said: "I want to send a cordial greeting to the dear Turkish people, rich in history and culture ... To this people and their leaders I express feelings of esteem and of sincere friendship."

In a last-minute change to the schedule, the Vatican announced that as well as visiting Hagia Sophia, the Pope will also call in on the Blue Mosque nearby, as a gesture of respect. But the Turks are taking no chances: Benedict, they say, will be given the same level of protection that would be given to President Bush.

The itinerary

* ANKARA

The Pope opens his Turkish tour tomorrow in the capital, where, after seeing the President, he will have a meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, the first important Muslim to denounce his Regensburg address. Demonstrations are expected in the city, and thousands of riot police are on standby.

* EPHESUS

The Pope is flying on Wednesday to the place where, according to tradition, St John the Evangelist brought the Virgin Mary in her old age and where she is said to have been assumed into heaven. He will celebrate mass nearby.

* ISTANBUL

Benedict then flies to Istanbul to meet the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Bartholomew I, whose invitation was the reason for the trip. He will also visit the Blue Mosque.

* HAGIA SOPHIA

The most delicate moment of the visit is on Thursday, when he goes to the ancient church, now a museum, which is regarded as one of the greatest buildings in the world. Many nationalists and Islamists will be watching keenly: if the Pope prays here (which is forbidden), it will confirm their grimmest suspicions about his desire to rebuild the Byzantine empire.

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