The largest rally yet organized in protest against the papal visit to Turkey took place on November 25 in Istanbul. The islamist Saadet (Happiness) party that organized the rally had predicted a turnout of over 1 million, but in the end only 25,000 boisterous protesters showed up shouting denunciations of Pope Benedict XVI. Some 4,000 police officers in riot kit also showed up, perhaps a sign of the considerable security being laid on in anticipation of the visit. Helicopters hovered overhead, while police frisked protesters entering the Sisli central district of Istanbul, a city of 15 millions.
The Happiness Party has no representation in the Turkish national legislature even though it has become a stronger force in Turkish politics in recent years. To that extant the visit of Pope Benedict could be seen as a litmus test for the party. If planned protests are not as popular - as their weekend demonstration - as had originally been hyped, that could be a sign that the population at large is rejecting the Happiness Party's radical platform, which in turn could be a positive sign for EU observers.
The pontiff’s remarks in September at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in which Muslim observers sensed a pairing of violence with the name of the prophet Mohammed, has emboldened islamist groups such as Saadet. Party spokesmen have called upon the pontiff to apologize for his supposed insult to Islam. The Happiness party has been outlawed because of its alleged threat to Turkey’ secularist system of government. Prime Minister Erdogan was once a member of the Happiness Party, but broke with it to form the currently ruling Justice and Development party.
Waving placards depicting the pope as speaking with a forked tongue, the protesters also erected a banner saying that the Vatican is "a source of terror" and "No to the crusader alliance!" The protesters mulled in a sea of red flags representing the Happiness party but that also resembled the Turkish national flag. The thousands of protesters shouted "No to the pope!" signaling islamist dismay over the arrival of the pontiff in his first journey to a Muslim majority, albeit ostensibly secularist, country.
Upon arriving in Ankara on November 28th, the pope will meet with Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan at the airport. The later will be on his way to a NATO meeting to be held in Latvia. The pope will then meet withTurkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and also with Ali Bardakoğlu, the head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate. From there, the pope will travel to Istanbul where he will meet Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I.
While in Istanbul (also known to many as Constantinople), Benedict XVI will visit the museum once known as the second-largest church in the world – the Haghia Sophia, as well as the famed Blue Mosque. Media covering the event, such as London’s Financial Times, have dubbed these the most sensitive aspects of the papal visit. Nationalists and islamists in Turkey have denounced the pope’s plans to visit the Haghia Sophia, while some voice concern that his real purpose in visiting Istanbul is to seal an alliance of Catholics and Orthodox against Islam. Even the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II, Mehmet Ali Agca, has urged the pope not to visit.
Islamists are protesting the papal visit to the two buildings, which bear considerable symbolism for both Muslims and Christians. During the years of the Ottomon Empire, the Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque, but once the secularist government of modern Turkey emerged, the building became a museum. The pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque, built to showcase Muslim architectural prowess, is meant to show "respect" for Muslim sentiments, according to Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Lombardi also stressed