ANKARA, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict began a highly charged visit to mostly Muslim Turkey on Tuesday hoping his calls for understanding between religions would soothe anger over his recent comments seen here as insulting to Islam.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met the Pontiff as he stepped off the plane and then held short talks with him before leaving for the NATO summit in Riga.
Security was heavy for Benedict’s first visit to the Muslim world, with sharpshooters on the roof of the arrivals building and troops guarding the airport. About 3,000 police have been posted in the Turkish capital to prevent any protests.
“The scope of this visit is dialogue, brotherhood, a commitment to understanding between cultures, between religions, for reconciliation,” the Pope told reporters on board his aircraft before leaving Rome for Turkey.
Benedict infuriated Muslims in September with a lecture that they said seemed to depict Islam as an irrational religion tainted with violence. He later expressed regret at the pain his comments caused but stopped short of a full apology.
About 50 civil servants held a peaceful protest at the Religious Affairs Directorate, where the Pope will meet Turkey’s top religious official later on Thursday. Turkey is mostly Muslim but the state is officially secular. “We are not against his visit but he comes after insulting Islam,” said Ufuk Erdem, one of the protesters. “He can visit our country whenever he wants but without insulting our honour.”
The visit by the leader of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics was originally intended to be a pre-eminently Christian event but it has taken on wider political ramifications in Western-Islamic relations, Catholic-Muslim relations and Turkey’s own aspirations to be part of Europe.
More than 20,000 Muslim protesters rallied against the Pope’s trip on Sunday in Istanbul, chanting “Pope don’t come”, but Benedict said he was expecting a warm reception.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, said before the arrival that the four-day visit would help contribute to global peace. “We as a nation … will show hospitality to the Pope as befits Turkey. We hope that this important visit will contribute to the search for global peace,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party, which has roots in political Islam.
The 79-year-old Pope said his trip was aimed at improving relations both with Muslims and the Orthodox Christians. “Dialogue in many dimensions: between cultures, between Christianity and Islam, dialogue with our Christian brothers, and above all the Orthodox Church of Constantinople and certainly a better understanding between us all.”
In a conciliatory gesture towards his Muslim hosts, Benedict will visit Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque.
Before becoming Pope last year, Benedict had said Turkey’s Muslim religion meant it did not belong in the EU. Most Turks seem indifferent to the visit by the Pope, but security will be very tight with protests expected by a small but vociferous minority of Islamists and hardline nationalists.
After his talks with Sezer and with Turkey’s top Muslim official, the Pope will visit Ephesus where the Virgin Mary is reputed to have lived and died. The main focus of his four-day trip will be talks on Christian unity with Patriarch Bartholomew, Istanbul-based spiritual head of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.