A landmark in Istanbul, Saint Sofia, has become the focus of the tension triggered by the visit to Turkey of Pope Benedict. The basilica was built by the Christians in the sixth century, but became a mosque after the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. In 1935 it was turned into a museum.
It has become a symbol of Turkey as a secular republic. Officials say the pope will visit Saint Sofia in the role of a tourist. But that has not gone down well with the ultra-nationalist Turks known as the Alperen Ocaklari. They staged a protest at Saint Sofia last week, demanding that the basilica once again become a mosque.
On Sunday, members of the Islamist Felicity party made their voices known. With the slogan, “we’re against your crusade”, some 20,000 turned out in Istanbul to demonstrate against the Pope’s visit. The protests are expected to swell in number ahead of the pontiff’s arrival.
Robert Anciaux is an expert on Islam and Turkey at the Free University of Brussels. He said: “Islamists believe the clash of civilisations pits the Islamic civilisation against the western civilisation, namely Christianity. For the ultra-nationalists, it’s simply about reaffirming the supremacy of the nation over everything else, and it’s about a programme that aims to give Turkey an identity that enables it to resist all outside influence.”
Observers say the papal visit has reawakened deep-rooted suspicion of Christianity. It also puts the spotlight on Turkey’s complexities: a nation trying to reconcile Islam with secular politics, and Euroscepticism with the European aspirations of its leaders.