Thousands protest on eve of Pope's visit to Turkey

 Around 25,000 people gathered in Istanbul yesterday to protest against Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey, which begins on Tuesday. The demonstration was organized by the pro-Islamic opposition party Felicity. Protesters said they were offended by the Pope's Regensburg speech in September in which he quote a Byzantine emperor who had who characterized some of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith." Pope Benedict has expressed regret for offending Muslims and said his remarks did not reflect his personal views. On Sunday, he expressed his "feelings of esteem and of sincere friendship" for Turks and their leaders. At the Vatican yesterday, a spokesman confirmed the Pope would visit Istanbul's Blue Mosque as "a sign of respect" to Muslims. It will be his first visit to a mosque as Pope. The Holy Father is scheduled to stay for four days in Turkey, his first official visit to a Muslim country. He will meet Turkey's president and deputy premier and the Istanbul-based leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Pope is not scheduled to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be out of the country during the visit attending a NATO summit in Latvia. Erdogan said Friday he may meet the Pope briefly at the airport on Tuesday if their arrival and departure times coincide. Officially, Turkey is a rigidly secular republic, though around 99 per cent of its population is Muslim.

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