Pope arrives in Turkey amid heavy security

Published 5:28 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey Tuesday on his first visit to a Muslim country, where he will seek to ease anger over his perceived criticism of Islam and mend a split with the world’s Orthodox Christians.

The pope’s airplane landed in the Turkish capital of Ankara, amid a massive security operation designed to thwart any attempts to disrupt the pontiff’s four-day trip at a time of heightened tension between the West and Islam.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the pope, who wore traditional white robes, at the foot of the plane. The two men shook hands and walked on a red carpet to the heavily guarded airport terminal for a private discussion.

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“I want to express happiness to see you and your delegation in our country,” Erdogan told the pope. He described the pope’s visit as “very meaningful.”

Erdogan, who was bound for a NATO summit in Latvia, had only announced the day before that he would make time to meet Benedict.

Before departing for Ankara, the pontiff said in Rome that he was embarking on a “trip of dialogue, brotherhood and reconciliation at this difficult moment in history.”

Turkish police monitored the highway leading to Ankara from the airport, where Turkish and Vatican flags waved in a light breeze. Snipers climbed atop buildings and hilltops. In wooded areas along the route, soldiers in camouflage fatigues set up observation points and sniffer dogs passed along bridges.

Dozens of members of Memur-Sen, a conservative union of civil servants demonstrated outside the religious affairs ministry, at least 25 miles from the airport, saying Benedict was not welcome

Mustafa Kir, chairman of the local branch of the union, addressed the crowd as police watched.

“This pope is not coming with good intentions, this guest does not deserve respect,” Kir said. “He came here by swearing at our prophet and book.”

Benedict’s journey is extraordinarily sensitive, a closely watched pilgrimage full of symbolism that could offer hope of religious reconciliation, or deepen what many say is a growing divide between the Christian and Islamic worlds.

The outcome depends partly on the words and gestures of Benedict, who triggered an outcry in September when he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor who characterized the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman.”

The Vatican said the speech was an attempt to highlight the incompatibility of faith and violence, and Benedict later expressed regret for the violent Muslim backlash.

The original goal of the pope’s trip to Turkey was to meet Bartholomew I, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Benedict split in 1054 over differences in opinion on the power of the papacy, and the two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to bridge the divide and reunite the churches.

Benedict leaves Ankara on Wednesday for Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last years, and will then travel to Istanbul, a former Christian metropolis known as Constantinople. The Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453 and it was renamed Istanbul following World War I.