ISTANBUL, Turkey – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to meet Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday, a change of plans that appears to signal openness to a visit that has angered many Turks.
Small protests broke out in the cities of Ankara and Istanbul on Monday, but authorities said security measures for the pope “” who angered Muslims worldwide with comments in September on Islam and violence “” will be tighter than they were for President Bush’s visit in 2004.
Benedict, on his first papal visit to a predominantly Muslim country, was to arrive at the Ankara airport Tuesday around noon, where he will meet briefly with Erdogan, who waited until the day before the pope’s arrival to announce that he would make time to see the pope.
News reports say some 3,000 police officers have been assigned to guard the pope upon his arrival in the dusty, sprawling capital of Ankara. Snipers will watch from hillsides and tall buildings, and armored vehicles and riot police will be stationed near the areas he is scheduled to visit.
Police also were staking out spots in Istanbul, where Benedict will spend most of his four days in Turkey.
“We have taken all the necessary measures and observations of the route the pope (will travel) and the places the pope will visit,” Istanbul police spokesman Ismail Caliskan said.
The most sensitive moment of Benedict’s visit may be his walk through the Haghia Sophia, a museum in Istanbul that was built as a Christian church in the 6th century and converted into a mosque in 1453 when Islamic armies conquered the city, then Constantinople.
On Monday, a group of around 100 demonstrators displayed what they said were a million signatures for a petition demanding that the Haghia Sophia be declared a mosque and opened to worship for Muslims.
In a speech Sunday, Benedict said he was coming to Turkey as a friend of the Turks and asked his followers to pray for him. That same day, more than 25,000 Turks protested in Istanbul, asking the pope to stay home….
Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the visit was an opportunity for improved relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds. “We would want this visit to be a cornerstone for (relations) between the two worlds,” Cicek said after a Cabinet meeting Monday.
“Turkey is a country that is recognized worldwide for its tolerance and its hospitality. This is an opportunity for (Turkey) to display these qualities,” he said.
Yes, and you’re off to such a magnificent start.