Security Tight as Pope Visits Turkey
Pope Benedict XVI faces a cool reception from Turkey as he begins his four-day official visit amid tight security and simmering Muslim anger over his recent comments on Islam.
This is the first visit by the Pope, who has also voiced opposition to Turkey accession to the EU, to a Muslim country since his election as Pontiff last year.
The Pope will ride through the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in a closed car instead of the glass-sided "popemobile" normally used on papal trips, although the Pope has said he will not wear a bullet-proof vest.
Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey's top Muslim official, assured that the Pope would be welcome in Turkey despite tensions and the anticipated protest of a minority of angry Islamists and hardline nationals.
"The Pope is head of the Catholic world and maintaining good ties between the Islamic world and the Catholic world is in everybody's interests. Disagreeing with somebody does not mean we are not hospitable to that person," said Bardakoglu, who heads Ankara's religious affairs directorate, or Diyanet, in a recent interview with Reuters.
Pope Benedict's visit comes at a time when many of the 100,000 Christians in Turkey - out of a population of 73 million - continue to feel frustrated by the popular mistrust of all Christians in the majority Muslim country.
The Iraq War, Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad and comments on Islam by the Pope have heightened tensions in the Muslim world, Turkey included.
"This year we have seen rising prejudice against Christians. Islamic and nationalistic sentiment is growing, probably because of the Iraq War, and people are angry," said Pastor Behnan Konutgan of the Immanuel Church in Istanbul in a Reuters Canada report.
The Pope is hoping that the visit will be an opportunity to build bridges after the offence he caused to large parts of the Muslim community with his comments on Islam but his focus remains to strengthen relations with the Orthodox Church.
During his visit, Pope Benedict will hold talks with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians.