Arriving with a message of dialogue, brotherhood and reconciliation, the Pope was met by the Turkish Prime Minister as he touched down in Ankara at the start of a highly-charged four-day visit. After a speech in September that enraged the Muslim world by appearing to insult their religion, Benedict XVI seemed to want to mend fences. Turkey, too, went out of its way to make this a positive trip. After initially saying he may not have time to meet the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan greeted the Pope at the airport.
In a private talk, Benedict – who before his election as Pope said Turkey should not join the European Union – said today he supported the mainly Muslim country’s bid for membership – a welcome boost for Ankara at a shaky time in its quest for accession.
The first port of call for the 79-year-old Pontiff was the hilltop mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the highly-revered founder of modern Turkey. He laid a wreath and wrote a message in a guest book calling Turkey a bridge between Asia and Europe and a meeting point of different religions and cultures.
Nearby a small group of protesters from an extremist right-wing Islamic party protested against his visit. In Istanbul over the weekend, tens of thousands of people took to the streets calling for the Pope to cancel his visit or apologise for his remarks earlier this year. Benedict later met with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in the presidential palace. The two men apparently discussed ways to enhance mutual understanding and cooperation.
Security is tight for the Pope’s visit, tighter even than for US President George W Bush’s trip of 2004, with some 15,000 extra police officers deployed. One of the Pontiff’s last stops in the Turkish capital, was with Turkey’s top Muslim official. He told Ali Bardakoglu, who oversees Turkey’s religious affairs, that guarantees of religious freedom are essential for a just society.