The main goal of Pope Benedict XVI's Istanbul trip is to mend fences with the Orthodox Christian Church as well as Muslims, who were offended by remarks the pontiff made about Islam during a visit to Bavaria.
Turkey's security forces won't take chances during papal visit
On Tuesday, when Pope Benedict XVI pays his first visit to predominantly Muslim Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the ruling Islamic party and his Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul will be attending the two-day NATO summit in Riga. Even Mehmet Aydin, the minister of religious affairs will be headed to the pope's native Germany, leaving the task of receiving Benedict in Istanbul to Erdogan's deputy, Mehmet Ali Sahin.
In addition to the less than high-level official reception, protesters in Istanbul this week rallied against the pontiff's visit, drawing tens of thousands of demonstrators. One speaker was cheered when he described the pope as the enemy of all Muslims and proclaimed that he should never be allowed to enter a Muslim country.
Tens of thousands protest papal visit
"The pope is coming and yet he said such terrible things about our most sacred prophet," the speaker said. "We don't want this bad and dangerous man here. We are here to defend our homeland, our nation and our faith."
The pope's remarks about Islam drew ire among many Muslims
The protestor was referring to remarks Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger, had made at a lecture at the University of Regensburg, in his native Bavaria in September, in which he made reference to a 14th century Byzantine emperor, who had characterized the teachings of the prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."
Although the pope swiftly expressed regret for the flap, his remarks infuriated many Muslims. Before being elected Pope, Benedict had also offended the Turks for his stance against their country's bid to join the European Union, saying that its population of mainly Sunni Muslims did not belong to Europe either culturally or religiously.
Dialogue to re-establish ties with Orthodox Christian churches
One of the main goals of the pope's visit is to re-establish ties with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world's orthodox Christians. The Vatican has been estranged from this eastern branch of Christianity since the schism of 1054, which was followed by a long feud over liturgical differences and papal supremacy. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the capital of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire before being overtaken by the Muslim Turks in 1453.
"The pope's visit is an expression of the desire for unity, but it is not easy to resolve some of the issues dividing us," Archbishop Demetrius, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, told Reuters.
"With such a long history of separation, you cannot move in a big jump. You need a methodical, step-by-step approach," said Demetrius, who will be in Istanbul for the papal visit.
Unlike Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians maintain a loose diaspora of churches around the world, which are mostly based in Greece, Russia, Armenia and the Balkan states. Only a tiny minority of Turkey's population is Christian.
Security tight during Benedict's three-day visit
Turkish riot police disperse protesters in Istanbul at a 2005 women's rights march
Turkey's security forces said they won't be taking chances during the papal visit, which will involve over 30,000 police, bomb disposal experts as well as unprecedented air and sea surveillance.
More police will protect Pope Benedict XVI when he visits Turkey than were deployed for US President George W. Bush, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul announced Sunday.
"The security measures being taken for the pope in Turkey are higher than taken for George W. Bush," Gul said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
The police will also be monitoring groups hostile to the pope, such as the lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, a leading member of an ultra-nationalist movement, who is still working hard to force a cancellation.
"The pope's visit is the biggest danger facing Turkey," Kerincsiz said. "It will constitute a great step in uniting the two main Christian churches. If this occurs, the Christians will then try and create a state within Istanbul like the Vatican."
Although such rhetoric is somewhat far-reaching, Kerincsiz's words strike a chord among many Turks in a climate of growing anti-European sentiment. However, at Orthodox Churches across Turkey, prayers are being said for Benedict's forthcoming visit. Patriarch Bartholomew has stressed that the Pope's trip will be a chance to show the world a modern, tolerant Turkey.