ISTANBUL, Turkey — ISTANBUL, Turkey -- In the largest protest against the impending arrival here of Pope Benedict XVI, more than 20,000 Turks filled a town square yesterday to denounce the visit as an affront to Islam.
Emotions are running high in this predominantly Muslim nation over a speech the pope made in September that was widely construed throughout the Islamic world as an insult to the Muslim faith and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad.
Amid tight security, youths waving red Turkish flags and brandishing placards that read, "Pope don't test our patience" chanted "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") as speakers took turns to slam the pontiff over his remarks.
"The pope's speech was a provocation. It is part of a devilish plan to prevent the tilt toward Islam," said Recai Kutan, the head of the Islamist Felicity Party, which organized the event.
The pope is scheduled to arrive in Ankara, the capital, tomorrow for a four-day pilgrimage that also will take him to a shrine to the Virgin Mary near Izmir and finally to Istanbul. Small but vocal groups of hard-line nationalists and radical Islamists have been protesting the visit.
This is by far the most problematic travel thus far in his 19-month-old papacy.
His primary purpose is to reach out to Istanbul-based Orthodox Christians, who split from the Roman Catholic Church 1,000 years ago. But especially after the speech in Regensburg, Germany, the trip also is meant to improve relations with Muslims.
In that speech at the university where he once taught, the pope linked Islam to violence and quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who disdained Islam. The comments provoked outrage in the Muslim world, and he later apologized for the reaction - although not the general message of his speech, which was that faith must be based on reason and not violence.
The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for Turkey's membership in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a "Greek agent" seeking to re-establish Christian influence in Turkey.
Wary of the public mood, Turkey's moderate Islamic-led government has shied away from according the pope the level of hospitality customary for visiting heads of state. Many Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, will be out of town when he arrives.
It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet the pope before leaving for a NATO summit in Estonia.
The pontiff, in an effort to placate his Turkish hosts, agreed to meet with the top official in charge of the country's religious affairs at the official's Ankara headquarters. Yesterday, the Vatican announced the last-minute addition to the pope's schedule of a stop at Istanbul's landmark 17th-century Blue Mosque.
Speaking at his weekly Angelus address at St. Peter's Square, the pope said he wished to convey his "esteem and sincere friendship" to the Turkish people, a nation "rich in history and culture."
Amberin Zaman and Tracy Wilkinson write for the Los Angeles Times