Tensions in Turkey Rise Ahead of Papal Visit

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Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey on Tuesday, with the baggage of controversial comments he made in September suggesting that Islam is violent and irrational. The mood in Istanbul is tense ahead of the pope's arrival, with banners and protesters proclaiming that the pontiff is not welcome.


President Bush isn't the only one traveling this week. On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey for what could be the most difficult papal trip since his predecessor, John Paul II, visited Communist Poland in 1979. He comes with the baggage of controversial comments he made in September, suggesting Islam is violent and irrational, comments that infuriated Turks and the rest of the Muslim world.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Istanbul, where there are large anti-pope demonstrations this morning.

Sylvia, what is the mood in Turkey just two days ahead of Pope Benedict's arrival?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It's very tense. The city is plastered with banners proclaiming we don't want the pope in Turkey, he's ignorant and comes with evil intentions. And security will be very tight. More than 4,000 agents will be deployed, gunboats will patrol the Bosporus, and many streets will be closed to traffic.

SEABROOK: Turkey hasn't always been - felt this way about the Vatican. They welcomed John Paul II 27 years ago. Why are Turks so wary of Pope Benedict XVI? Is it just because of the comments a few months ago?

POGGIOLI: Well, the Turkish reactions to the pope's Islam remarks were the harshest in the Muslim world. And as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had said Turkey shouldn't be allowed into the European Union because it's not a Christian nation. So he angered both Islamists and secular nationalists. There have been editorials warning the pope not to make any gestures or comments that could be interpreted as insulting Islam and Turkish nationalism.

SEABROOK: And there's some history here. This visit is steeped in it. Give us some of the background.

POGGIOLI: Well, Benedict will be treading the historical frontline of Christianity versus Islam at a time of strong West/Muslim tensions. This is the former Constantinople, the one-time capital of Eastern Christianity that fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The most sensitive stop will be a brief visit to Santa Sofia, which was first a Christian basilica, then a mosque, and today is a secular museum. Should the pope pray, make the sign of the cross or get down on his knees while there, he's likely to further anger Turkish Muslims who see him as a modern crusader who wants to reinforce Christianity in Turkey as well as nationalists who see him as the face of western imperialism wanting to carve Turkey up.

SEABROOK: What does that mean for the original intent of the visits, which I understand was Christian unity through the mending of relations between Catholics and Orthodox?

POGGIOLI: Well, there's the danger that it's going to be overshadowed. The Pope wanted to pray with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and try to end the 1,000-year-old schism between the two ancient branches of Christianity. But here too he's going to be treading delicate ground. Turkish nationalists don't want to hear the Patriarch addressed as ecumenical. It means universal, and nationalists see it as an alleged attempt by the Orthodox Church to claim independent authority. And this raises the delicate issue of religious freedom. The 100,000 Christians here face severe restrictions. Priests are not allowed to wear collars in public. Church property ownership is severely limited, and there are no schools to train Christian clerics. And the European Union has sharply criticized Turkey's limitations on religious freedom.

SEABROOK: Sylvia, do we know exactly yet who the pope will see during his visit?

POGGIOLI: Well, signs of how difficult this trip are, that the schedule is still incomplete and that few top-level officials are willing to meet the pope. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan first said he wouldn't be able to see Benedict because he'll be at a NATO summit. Then he said maybe they'd meet at the airport if their schedules coincide. And that last minute concession came after commentators warned the government not to turn its back on the Papal visit and allow street protest to monopolize world headlines and TV pictures. And even Benedict appears to have yielded a bit. At the suggestion of the Turkish side, it now seems he'll make a short visit to a mosque as a gesture of reconciliation.

SEABROOK: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Istanbul, Turkey. Thanks Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

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