Thousands rally against Pope

The demonstration, organised by the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) and entitled “The pope is not welcome”, attracted about 15,000 people, almost all of them party sympathisers, far below the one million the party predicted and even the 300,000 other sources estimated.

Hundreds of security forces, including riot police, were on guard at the venue, Caglayan square in central Istanbul.

The mix of religious and political slogans reflected widespread suspicion among nationalists and Islamists that the four-day papal visit is part of Western designs to subdue the Muslim world rather than an effort to reconcile religions.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church triggered uproar across Muslim countries in September when he linked Islam and violence in quoting a Byzantine emperor who said the Prophet Mohammed brought “things only evil and inhuman.”

“You must first apologise to the Muslims and then come to these sacred lands,” SP leader Recai Kutan told the rally, calling Benedict XVI “a representative of grudge and hatred” and “an envoy of global imperialism.”

“Show respect to the prophet, pope!” one banner read.

Others said: “Ignorant pope, read your own history!” and “Pope, go home!”

“Allahu Akbar,” the protestors chanted, followed by others who shouted “Down with Israel” and “Down with America.”

Turkey country profile

Some waved Palestinian and Chechen flags.

Under photographs of Iraq war victims, one banner asked: “Who did this?”

Another read: “Who is responsible for terrorism: the USA, Israel and the EU, or Iraq and the Palestinians?”

Many brandished banners that said: “No to the crusaders’ alliance” – a slogan endorsed by the SP for the demonstration.

Opponents of the visit say the pontiff’s scheduled talks with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, is aimed not only at healing the centuries-old schism between the two churches, but at sealing a Christian alliance against Islam.

Hagia Sophia controversy

The rally highlighted another sensitive point the pope’s program here has touched – his planned visit to Hagia Sophia, a sixth century Byzantine church converted to a mosque in 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, then called Constantinople. It was transformed into a museum in 1935.

“Break the chains, open Hagia Sophia,” the protestors chanted, echoing Islamist desire for the edifice to be re-opened as a mosque.

Opponents say the pope’s planned visit Thursday to the building, one of Istanbul’s architectural landmarks and a major tourist attraction, is an indication of Christian ambitions to reclaim it as a church.

On Wednesday, police detained 39 nationalist Islamist militants at a wildcat demonstration at Hagia Sophia after they held evening prayers inside the building in defiance of its status as a museum.

“I have Christian clients and I respect them,” Munir Ozel, a butcher in the upscale Nisantasi district, told news agency AFP at the rally.

“We have churches and priests here and we respect them.

But they too should respect us.”