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Thousands in Turkey Protest Pope's Upcoming Visit

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in a square in Istanbul Sunday to protest Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey later this week. The protesters say the pope is not welcome, until he properly apologizes for comments made about Islam two months ago. Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Istanbul.

It was the largest anti-pope demonstration so far in Turkey. Pope Benedict begins his four-day pilgrimage in Ankara on Tuesday. But many at Sunday's protest made clear that the pope is not welcome.

Mucahid Zafer, 22, was among the many young people, who turned out to protest the pope's visit.

He says, they do not want the pope to come to Turkey, because he insulted the prophet Muhammed. The pope, he said, used disrespectful language about him, which offended the Turkish people.

Two months ago, the pope sparked widespread protests in the Muslim world by quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor, who called some of the teachings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad "evil" and "inhuman."

Security was tight for the demonstration, organized by the pro-Islamic party called Saadat, or Felicity. A helicopter hovered overhead as 4,000 police, backed by armored vehicles, stood by.

A spokesman for the party, Mustafa Kaya, said Turkey is a hospitable nation, but what the pope did, is unacceptable and he must formally apologize.

"We are against this visit because, firstly he must apologize. He must apologize," he said, "in the world there are two billion Muslim people. If you have good relations between religions, we have to understand, we have to respect each other."

The pope has said that he was "deeply sorry" over the reactions to his comments and that they did not reflect his own opinions.

At the demonstration, women wore headscarves. Some young people wore headbands with the phrase: "Pope Don't Come." Others carried posters urging the pope to stay home.

In Rome, the pope addressed pilgrims in Saint Peter's Square, and spoke of his visit, his first to a predominantly Muslim nation. He expressed his esteem and sincere friendship for the Turkish people, and asked for prayers for his four-day pilgrimage to a country that, he said, is rich in history and culture.