Thousands Rally Against Pope's Visit to Turkey

Thousands have protested in Istanbul Sunday against the visit by the Pope due to begin on Tuesday.

More than 20,000 Muslims have rallied in Istanbul on Sunday in the biggest protest so far against the controversial visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey this week.

The backlash follows a controversial speech made by the Pope in September, which left many Muslims angered by his use of a quote which connected Islam with violence and evil.

Thousands of youths took to the streets wearing headbands with Islamic slogans, beating drums and waving red-and-white Turkish flags to protest the Pope's first official visit to Turkey, due to start on Tuesday.

The youths chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and "Pope don't come" at the peaceful rally," reports Reuters.

"I cannot remain silent when the Prophet Mohammad is insulted. I love him more than myself," said Husamettin Aycan Alp, 25, a science student from Izmir in western Turkey.

He alleged that Roman Catholic cardinals chose this Pope last year "because he is against Islam and (they) are concerned Islam is spreading in Europe".

The rally was organised by the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) and entitled "The pope is not welcome". The approximately 20,000 who took part fell far below predictions by the SP that one million would turn out for the protest and even predictions from other sources which estimated a turnout of 300,000 demonstrators.

The Pope is hoping that the visit will be an opportunity to build bridges after the offence his speech caused to large parts of the Muslim community but his focus remains on strengthening relations with the Orthodox Church.

During his four-day visit, Pope Benedict will hold talks with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians.

The Pope has sent a message of respect and friendship to the people of Turkey during his Sunday prayers at the Vatican.

"Starting right now, I want to send a cordial greeting to the dear Turkish people, rich in history and culture. To these people and their representatives I express feelings of esteem and sincere friendship," he said in his noon address.

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