Why Turks Are Not Pleased to See the Pope

For many in Turkey, the visiting pontiff personifies the mounting hostility they feel from Europe.

It took a 12 hour bus ride for Hafize Kucuk and Sevgi Ozen, 21-year-old university students, to get from the northern Turkish city of Samsun to an Istanbul rally Sunday protesting Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey this week. But they thought little of the inconvenience. "This is a man who insulted our Prophet [Muhammad] and didn't even apologize properly," said Kucuk. "Now he's coming to our country, a Muslim country. This is unacceptable. We came to make our voices heard."

The rally, attended by some 15,000 Islamist protestors, was a colorful affair. Huge, lurid posters linking Benedict to Crusader knights. Hundreds of young men, wearing white headbands inscribed with the message "We don't want this sly Pope in Turkey", chanted angry slogans.

Militant protestors are a minority, but many Turks are deeply skeptical about a visit they view as part of a Western design against Turkey, which is mostly Muslim but officially secular.

The Pope could not have arrived at a more sensitive time: Turkey and the European Union appear on a collision course over whether the bloc will admit Turkey and its 70 million citizens. Support in Turkey for the EU has plummeted — a poll last week showed 60 percent in favor of suspending membership talks. And for many Turks, Benedict, who once warned that letting Turkey into the EU would be "a grave error against the tide of history," personifies European hostility towards them.

"At this point most Turks are deeply suspicious of the West," says Cengiz Aktar, political science professor at Galatasaray University. "They see this visit as yet another development to be suspicious of."

The protests have made strange bedfellows of the far left and the nationalist right. Their chief grievance concerns the Pope's scheduled talks with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians. The talks, many Turks believe, are aimed not just at healing the centuries-old schism between the two churches, but at paving the way for creating in Turkey a Vatican-like entity for the Orthodox.

Every detail on the Pope's four-day itinerary is fraught with complications, including a planned visit to Hagia Sophia, a sixth century Byzantine church which was converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. It was transformed into a museum in 1935.

Nationalists believe the Pope's visit to Hagia Sophia, a major tourist attraction, is a sign of Christian desire to reclaim it as a church. Newspapers have speculated feverishly over whether he will pray while inside.

"Its not that we have anything personal against the Pope," says Zafer Emanetoglu, head of the youth branch of the Islamist party which organized Sunday's rally. "But we know that he is here as part of a greater plan against Turkey, and to unite Christians against Muslims."

The Pope's visit has also put the moderate, Islamist-rooted government in a tight spot. With elections slated for next year, Turkish newspapers have speculated that being photographed with the Pope could alienate constituents of the ruling party — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used his attendance at a NATO summit in Latvia to excuse himself from meeting with the pontiff.

To prevent any protests turning violent, a tight security plan — similar to that used for U.S. President George W. Bush on a recent visit — will be in place. Thousands of policemen, including snipers on rooftops, are on duty in Istanbul, and the papal entourage will feature hi-tech scrambling devices and decoy cars.

"Every security precaution has been taken," said a Turkish foreign ministry official. "Turks are a tolerant people, I don't imagine there will be any problems." Still, Ankara will be holding its breath until Friday, when the Pope flies home.

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