November 26, 2006
ISTANBUL, Turkey (Reuters) -- More than 20,000 Muslims in Istanbul on Sunday staged the biggest protest so far against Pope Benedict's trip to Turkey as Islamic opposition to this week's controversial visit gathered momentum.
Benedict, due to begin his first official visit to a Muslim country next Tuesday, angered many Muslims in September with a speech they took as an insult to Islam.
Youths wearing headbands with Islamic scripts, beating drums and waving Turkish red and white flags chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) in the peaceful rally.
"I cannot remain silent when the Prophet Mohammed is insulted. I love him more than myself," said Husamettin Aycan Alp, 25, a science student from Izmir in western Turkey.
He said Roman Catholic cardinals chose this pope last year "because he is against Islam and are concerned Islam is spreading in Europe."
The four-day visit is billed as an opportunity to heal wounds with the Muslim world after the pope quoted a Byzantine emperor saying Islam was violent and irrational. He has said he did not share that view.
Speaking in the Vatican on Sunday, Benedict said he wanted the visit to show his "esteem and sincere friendship" for Turkey and its people.
A visit to Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque was added to the pope's itinerary at the last minute, a move seen as an attempt at further reconciliation with the Muslim world.
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made the first visit by a pontiff to a mosque during a trip to Damascus in 2001. Pope John Paul paid the last papal visit to Turkey in 1979.
The Islamist Felicity party organizing the protest under the banner "against the crusader alliance" -- a reference to the crusaders who crossed Anatolia 1,000 years ago on their way to Jerusalem -- had expected an attendance of at least 75,000.
"Muslims don't want the pope in their lands. Look at the suffering which they spread in Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya. I link this to Christianity," said Ferdi Borekci, a 28-year-old architect.
Before becoming pope, Benedict annoyed Turks by speaking out against Turkey's bid to join the European Union, saying it did not belong there because of its religion and culture.
Turkey's ruling AK Party government has kept a low profile in preparations for this visit, with talks still ongoing as to whether Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, will meet him before heading off to a NATO summit in Riga.
With presidential and parliamentary elections due next year the AK Party, which has roots in political Islam, must balance a rise in nationalism as well as their support base among conservative Muslims.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who will be absent during the pope's visit, played down the controversy.
"We hope this visit will help eliminate misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians," Gul told a news conference.
"His message will be very important."
Turkey plans tight security measures for the pope, whose trip takes in the capital Ankara, Istanbul -- formerly Constantinople -- and the site where the Virgin Mary is believed to have lived and died near Izmir on the Aegean coast.