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Pope Benedict is making a major international trip this week. It's a four-day visit to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country. The trip became controversial after the pontiff gave a speech in September in which he quoted an ancient Byzantine text that described Islam as evil, inhuman and spread by the sword. Turkish officials called this an insult, and the pope later expressed regret, but he has stopped short of a full apology.
NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.
(Soundbite of street noise)
IVAN WATSON: In the courtyard of a cathedral off a busy Istanbul street, there's a statue of another pope named Benedict. The monument here honors Pope Benedict XV, who was described after his efforts to end World War I as a benefactor of all people, regardless of nation or creed. Today, most passersby barely give the statue a second glance. But some Turks here remember another, more recent pope quite fondly.
Ms. SUZAN MARBUCH(ph): John Paul, very, very good. (Turkish spoken)
WATSON: A woman named Suzan Marbuch pats her head in respect when she mentions Pope John Paul II. She's not nearly as enthusiastic, though, about the current pontiff.
Ms. MARBUCH: (Turkish spoken)
WATSON: We're not happy about him because of what he said about the prophet, she says. I'm afraid some uneducated people here may make problems during his visit.
Yesterday in Istanbul, thousands of flag-waving Turks held a peaceful protest against the pope.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
WATSON: The demonstration was organized by a fringe Islamist political party. Protestors held signs printed in English that said Inquisition, No Comment; and We Believe in Jesus, Do You Believe in Mohammed?
Mustafa Kaiya(ph), one of the organizers of the protest, says Turks are still angry about the pope's controversial speech two months ago.
Mr. MUSTAFA KAIYA (Protest Organizer): He said that Islam did not bring anything to the world, for the world. And he said Mohammed is a terrorist; Mohammed brought bloodshed. This is not acceptable.
WATSON: Pope Benedict has few fans here, in part because he also previously spoke out against Turkey's bid to become the first Muslim country to join the European Union. Relations have appeared frosty between the Vatican and Turkey's moderate Islamist government in the run-up to this visit. The prime minister of Turkey initially said he would not have time to meet the pope. At the last minute, he has made plans to welcome Benedict at the airport.
Ali Carkoglu, a political scientist at Sabanci University, says this could be an excellent opportunity for the pope to reach out to Muslims.
Professor ALI CARKOGLU (Political Science, Sabanci University): If he wants, he can. The question is whether or not he will choose to.
WATSON: In fact, the main goal of this papal visit is to reach out to Turkey's dwindling Christian community. Pope Benedict is expected to perform a divine liturgy in Istanbul this week with ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew. It's part of a campaign to repair the ancient rift between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church. To this day, the rigidly secular Turkish state refuses to recognize Bartholomew as the spiritual head of the world's orthodox Christians.
Political scientist Ali Carkoglu says some opposition groups are spreading conspiracy theories about the pope's upcoming meeting with the patriarch.
Prof. CARKOGLU: Nowadays, people are trying to portray him as, you know - he's visiting because he wants to transform the country into a Christian country.
WATSON: One poster distributed by secular ultra-nationalists shows the pope and the patriarch as two serpents coiled around a cross. Turkey's prime minister dismisses these groups as marginal. He has also asked Turks to extend their hospitality to the pope. That's a strategy taxi driver Mikhail Goak(ph) agrees with.
Mr. MIKHAIL GOAK: (Turkish spoken)
WATSON: We know about the pope's ignorant statement about Muslims, he says. So we should host him in a very nice way so that he will be ashamed of what he said.
In the last few days, the Vatican has also announced its own last-minute change in the pope's itinerary. On Wednesday, after touring Ayasofya, once the most important cathedral in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pope Benedict will go next door and pay a visit to a 17th century mosque.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.
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