Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey Tuesday, marking his first visit to a Muslim country as pontiff. He backed Turkey's bid to join the European Union and said he believed Islam was a religion of peace, hoping to soothe tension after his controversial remarks about Islam.
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Two months after inflaming Muslim public opinion around the world with comments equating Islam with violence, Pope Benedict XVI is in Ankara beginning his four-day visit to Turkey.
He was welcomed at the airport by the country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who only decided to meet the pope at the 11th hour. The two men talked for 20 minutes in an airport VIP lounge, and the prime minister says the pope told him he would like Turkey to join the European Union. That's a huge u-turn from what the pope said two years ago about Turkey's unsuitability to join the club of Christian nations.
The pope's first stop amid some of the tightest security Ankara has ever seen was the Ataturk Mausoleum. It's the resting place of Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, who built the Turkish republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, and imposed the constitutional separation that still exists here between religion and state.
At a meeting with the head of Turkey's religious affairs directorate, the government office that oversees all the country's religious institutions, the pope called for an authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims and for mutual respect for the differences between the two faiths.
Pressure on Turkey's government to keep the pope at arm's length was on open display in recent days. In Istanbul Sunday, one Islamic political party held a protest, and several thousand people demonstrated, shouted, "God is great," and, "Pope stay home."
Flag vendor Vedat Yanar said he wants the pope to express tolerance for other religions.
VEDAT YANAR, Flag Vendor (through translator):
He has to apologize, really. He has to have respect for other religions. He may not belong to that religion, but there's a huge population belonging to it, so he has to show respect for it.
Other protesters said they wanted to hear a very clear statement of apology from the pope, more than the regrets he previously offered for the September speech in which he cited the belief that Islam was, quote, "spread by the sword."
LEYLA OZTURK, Student (through translator):
We want the pope to apologize, and we want him to come here only after he's apologized and not before.
Further protests are anticipated later this week, particularly during the pope's delicate visit to Istanbul. There, in a gesture of respect for Islam, he will visit the 17th-century Blue Mosque, and there are other landmarks on his itinerary of high symbolic significance.
This building, called Aya Sofia by the Turks, was fought over by Christians and Muslims for centuries. It's potentially the most controversial site of the pope's visit, and his deeds here will be as important as his words.
The pope is spending the night in Ankara at the embassy of the Holy See. Tomorrow, he'll head to Ephesus and then Istanbul, as the guest of the Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world's 250 million orthodox Christians.