By Molly Moore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006 10:00 AM
ANKARA, Turkey, Nov. 26 -- Thousands of chanting, flag-waving protesters on Sunday denounced Pope Benedict XVI as anti-Islamic, demanding that he cancel a trip to Turkey this week that the Vatican hopes will help mend relations between the pontiff and Muslims.
An estimated 25,000 protesters jammed a large square in Istanbul in one of the largest public demonstrations against the visit so far in this predominantly Muslim country, where secular voices are battling growing Islamic forces at a critical moment in Turkey's relations with the West.
The pope's visit has infuriated many Muslims because of remarks he made 2 1/2 months ago in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor equating some of the prophet Muhammad's teachings with violence and evil. The pope has not apologized for making the remarks but has said he regretted the pain they may have caused Muslims.
In a last-minute change of plans that indicates a new receptiveness to the pontiff's visit, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now expected to meet with Benedict XVI on Tuesday for 20 minutes at Ankara's airport after the pontiff flies in from Italy, the Associated Press reported from Vatican City.
Erdogan had originally said he could not meet the pope because he would be attending a NATO summit in Latvia, prompting Italian newspapers to dub it a snub to the pontiff. The Vatican insisted at the time that it was a result of a scheduling conflict.
Erdogan will now squeeze in an airport meeting before leaving for Latvia, according to a Vatican spokesman, the AP reported. The Vatican announced the meeting, which Erdogan's spokesman then confirmed.
Protesters waved signs declaring "Go home, pope" and shouted, "No to the pope!" as about 4,000 police, many in riot gear, ringed the square and helicopters monitored the crowd from overhead.
"We don't want the pope here," said Mustafa Demir, 50, as he gripped the hands of his two elementary-school-age daughters. "He insulted our prophet."
Although many Turks oppose the papal visit, some government authorities and business leaders see it as a chance to promote Turkey's efforts to join the European Union and to highlight the country's secular political system.
Turkish officials attempted to play down the protest. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said at a news conference that the pope's visit could help "remove some misunderstandings" between Christians and Muslims and that his messages would "be very important."
During his regular Sunday address at the Vatican, Benedict told the crowd beneath his window, "Starting right now, I want to send a cordial greeting to the dear Turkish people, rich in history and culture."
He added, "To these people and their representatives, I express feelings of esteem and sincere friendship."
The Vatican also confirmed Sunday that the pope will visit Istanbul's famous Blue Mosque, the Sultanahmet, in his first visit to a mosque as pope.
Turkish authorities said security will be extremely tight during the papal trip, which begins in the capital, Ankara, includes a visit to the shrine near Ephesus, where many Catholics believe the Virgin Mary lived her final days, and ends in Istanbul.
Although Vatican-Muslim relations have dominated the headlines about it, the trip was originally scheduled to help repair a centuries-old divide between the Vatican and Orthodox Christian churches. The pope will have two meetings with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is based in Istanbul and has waged his own religious battles with the Turkish government.
Many of the protesters at the rally Sunday in Istanbul were just as distressed by the pope's planned meeting with the Orthodox patriarch as they were by what they see as his attitude toward Muslims.
"We are here to prevent the visit of the pope," said Gulnihal Yildirim, 38, who wore a head scarf and was accompanied by her two daughters, ages 6 and 11, each sporting green headbands reading, "The pope should not come."
"He will be the guest of the state for one day and of the patriarch for three days," added Yildirim, who said she opposed the pope's efforts to enhance the status of the patriarch in this Muslim country.
Special correspondent Yonca Poyraz-Dogan in Istanbul contributed to this report.