At 1pm Turkish-time today Pope Benedict XVI arrived at Ankara, Turkey’s Esemboğa International Airport, for his historic visit. The Pontiff was greeted by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, after a brief welcome, traveled by motorcade to the Ataturk Mausoleum.
Touching down amid a large cordon of security, the Pope’s plane was met by the Prime Minister. Erdogan was previously going to miss Benedict’s arrival, due to a NATO meeting in Latvia, but in the last few days adjusted his schedule and delayed his departure.
The two heads of state shook hands and processed from the plane on a red carpet.
"I want to express happiness to see you and your delegation in our country," Erdogan told the Pope. He described the Pope's visit as "very meaningful."
"I really wanted to come to Turkey because Turkey has become a bridge ... between the religions," Benedict reportedly told the Prime Minister through an interpreter.
"It is a democratic, Islamic country and a bridge," the Pope said. "I wanted to come to Turkey since becoming pope because I love this culture."
"I want to reiterate the solidarity between the cultures," Benedict said. "This is our duty."
After a brief, private meeting between the two, the Pontiff was ushered to a bulletproof car, for travel to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “Father of Turkey” who was the founder and first president of the modern Turkish Republic.
Pope Benedict stood briefly in prayer at the grave of Ataturk before proceeding to a small podium to sign the mausoleum’s ceremonial guest book.
The Holy Father wrote in the book, “In this land, a meeting point of different religions and cultures, and bridge between Asia and Europe, I gladly make my own the words of the Founder of the Turkish Republic: ‘Peace at Home, peace in the World’.”
The Pope’s trip, which was initially designed as one of primarily eccumenical importance - highlighted by the Holy Father’s visit with the spiritual head of the Orthodox Church - has since taken on a more interreligious and intercultural tone. Many in the largely Islamic country have protested the arrival of the Pontiff, due to a speech he gave earlier this year in Germany which was widely misinterpreted as a direct attack on Islam.
Several Islamic radicals have staged protests in advance of the Pope’s arrival and security has been heightened to protect the Pontiff.
According to the Associated Press, Turkish police monitored the highway leading to Ankara from the airport. And snipers were positioned atop buildings and hilltops. In wooded areas along the route, soldiers in camouflage fatigues set up observation points and sniffer dogs passed along bridges.
Before departing for Ankara, the Pontiff said in Rome that he was embarking on a "trip of dialogue, brotherhood and reconciliation at this difficult moment in history."
After departing from the Ataturk Mausoleum the Pope met privately with the President of Turkey, at the Presidential Palace.
Before the day is over, Pope Benedict will also visit with the President of Religious Affairs for the country and with members of the Diplomatic Corps to Turkey.