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Turkish leader says he'll meet pope

Published Nov. 28, 2006

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to meet Pope Benedict XVI today, a change of plans that appears to signal openness to a visit that has angered many Turks.

Small protests broke out in the cities of Ankara and Istanbul on Monday, but authorities said security measures for the pope - who angered Muslims worldwide with comments in September on Islam and violence - will be tighter than they were for President Bush's visit in 2004.

Benedict, on his first papal visit to a predominantly Muslim country, was to arrive at the Ankara airport today around noon, where he will meet briefly with Erdogan, who waited until the day before the pope's arrival to announce that he would make time to see the pope.

News reports say 3,000 police officers have been assigned to guard the pope upon his arrival in the dusty, sprawling capital of Ankara. Police also were staking out spots in Istanbul, where Benedict will spend most of his visit.

In a speech Sunday, Benedict said he was coming to Turkey as a friend of the Turks and asked his followers to pray for him. That same day, more than 25,000 Turks protested in Istanbul, asking the pope to stay home.

The visit to Turkey will be a test of whether the pope can soften some of the Christian-Muslim tensions that boiled over after he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of Islam's prophet Mohammed as "evil and inhuman."

The visit will also be a test of the Turkish public's willingness to tolerate criticism of Islam and the country's ability to coordinate a potentially problematic visit.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the visit was an opportunity for improved relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds. "We would want this visit to be a cornerstone for (relations) between the two worlds," Cicek said after a Cabinet meeting Monday.

"Turkey is a country that is recognized worldwide for its tolerance and its hospitality," he said. "This is an opportunity for (Turkey) to display these qualities."