Vatican announces Papal visit to mosque, as Turks continue to protest

.- In what is being reported as an attempt to “ease Muslim anger” by the Turkish press, Pope Benedict XVI will visit Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque during his visit to Turkey this week.

The Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque, stands in a square of the same name in the historical district of Istanbul, opposite the “Aya Sofya” (or Hagia Sophia) museum. It was built in 1609 to rival the city's magnificent Christian basilica, the Hagia Sophia.

Vatican Press Office director Fr. Federico Lombardi confirmed Sunday that Benedict will pay a short visit to the mosque on Nov. 30, the same day he is scheduled to visit the Hagia Sophia, which was converted to a mosque and is now a museum.

Turkish press reported that the visit to the mosque was suggested by Turkey's department of religious affairs to ease Muslim anger. Pope John Paul II made the first visit by a pontiff to a mosque during a trip to Damascus in 2001.

While the trip was initially organized to enhance dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, it has developed into an opportunity to heal wounds with the Muslim world after the Pope quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was violent and irrational.

Although the Pope has said that he does not share the emperor’s view, some Muslim Turks have been protesting his visit.

More than 20,000 Muslims in Istanbul on Sunday staged the biggest protest so far against Pope Benedict’s trip. Organizers had expected 75,000.

Youths wearing headbands with Islamic scripts, beating drums and waving Turkish red and white flags chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) in the peaceful rally.

One student said he believed the cardinals elected Benedict to be Pope because they knew he was against Islam. Another student said he linked the suffering in Palestine, Iraq, and Chechnya to Christianity.

Fr. Lombardi has said the Vatican has no fears for the Pope's safety while he is in Turkey, and he will not be wearing a bullet-proof vest at any time.

He said Turkey is able to “guarantee security on this trip without any problems.”

Turkish authorities are expected to put scores of snipers on rooftops during the Pope's visit and police with machine guns will patrol the Bosphorus in boats when he is Istanbul.  

The Vatican and office of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, announced today that the Prime Minister will most likely meet with the Pope before going to a NATO summit in Riga.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told a news conference that he hopes the Pope’s visit will “help eliminate misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians." Gul will be out of the country during the Pope's visit.

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