Benedict XV1: Signs of a cool reception in Turkey Print E-mail

 London -- November 27, 2006

The rally in Istanbul attacked the Pope’s plans to visit the Saint Sophia basilica, a former mosque (Faith Saribas/Reuters)

Young and old of Istanbul are happy to roar their disapproval

Suna Erdem, Istanbul

“The Crusades ­ what a very peaceful walk,” reads a sarcastic placard in English, held aloft by a young woman with a headscarf. A teenager and his bearded father are squabbling for control of another that asks: “We believe in Jesus, do you believe in Muhammad?”

Their struggle is broken by the loudspeaker, asking the 20,000 protesters in a central Istanbul square whether they want Pope Benedict XVI to visit Turkey. After regular reminders of the Pope’s Regensburg University address, with its implication that Islam is linked to violence, there can only be one answer.

“No! No! No!” they roar. Old women, children and burly youths wave their fists in unison. Police stop frisking opportunist tradesmen, who shake their trays of sweetmeats in the air in agreement. A baby sleeps in his pram while his mother, in a black chador, mutters curses under her breath.

The loud and cheerful demonstration by some of Istanbul’s most religious residents has more the air of a mass family picnic than a virulent outburst against the Pope. As the English banners underline, Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion, unlike Christianity, the creed of the Crusaders. The homemade Turkish signs are more aggressive, threatening to cut off his impertinent tongue and telling him to go to hell.

The loudest boos, however, are reserved for references to the Pope’s proposed visit to Saint Sophia, the magnificent Byzantine basilica where Mehmed the Conqueror prayed after he took the city for the Ottoman Empire in 1453. It remained as a mosque until the Turkish Government turned it into a museum in the 1920s, to the annoyance of Islamists. If the Pope prays or so much as crosses himself when he enters the vast domed building, he will have staked a claim on the place, the protesters say.

Away from the scene, however, rather than complaining about the visit, secularist columnists have been upbraiding the Government about the mixed messages it has given the Pope and the lost opportunity to show that Turkey, a European Union candidate, is part of the Western world rather than a remote Islamic outpost.