ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey held its collective breath on the eve of the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI last night, as the nation's prime minister suddenly changed plans and indicated that he would greet the pope when he arrives.
At one point, it appeared that every prominent Turkish official was going to be out of the country during Benedict's visit, an unlikely scheduling snafu that suggested a deliberate snub by the Turkish government. Prime Minister Erdogan said he would be at a NATO conference in Latvia during the pope's four-day visit and that he would be unable to greet him, as is traditional for a head of state. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül indicated that his schedule matched Mr. Erdogan's. The minister for religious affairs, Mehmet Aydin, said he was scheduled to attend a conference in Germany, and the mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, indicated that he would be out of the country as well.
Now, Mr. Erdogan appears set to meet the pope when he arrives at Ankara's Esenboga Airport today, before the prime minister departs for the NATO summit.
With that potential diplomatic insult seemingly averted, the question turned to what kind of reception the pope would receive from the Turkish people.
Over the weekend, the Saadet, or Happiness, Party held a rally to denounce the pope, predicting 100,000 people would join it for the protest in central Istanbul. But only about 20,000 turned up.
Still, the rally offered the international press the expected pictures of throngs of angry Muslims denouncing the pope for a September speech in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, linking "evil and inhuman" acts with Islam. Photo wires around the world showed mock banners depicting Benedict as a Crusader from the Middle Ages; CNN International promoted its coverage coming this week as a look at "a collision of faiths."
Over and above his September statement, the pope is unpopular in many Turkish circles for statements he made as a cardinal opposing Turkey's entry into the European Union. For many Turks, who see a denial of their European qualifications as the height of snobbery, if not outright bigotry, the pope's statements appeared to endorse the concept of the European Union as a Christians-only club.
Secular and elite Turks are bracing themselves for a likely black eye for the country, unless the pope's visit goes off without a hitch.
A columnist in the English-language Turkish Daily News, Mehmet Ali Birand, predicted that the headlines during the trip would include, "Turkish government turns back on pope," "Turkey shows it is not European," or "pope booed."
"Right now, we are making sure such headlines will dominate newspapers across the globe," Mr. Birand wrote. "The government needlessly gives the impression that it doesn't really want the trip to happen."
Turkey, a secular democracy whose military plays a consistent role in political affairs, sees itself as politically and culturally light years away from the hostile and extreme images of Islam that emanate from Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Taliban-era Afghanistan.
The country is staunchly secular — the wearing of a traditional headscarf is banned in government buildings — and it prides itself on its "modernity," welcoming hordes of European, American, and Russian tourists to its cities and beaches each year. But the country's boisterous and often sensationalist press often speculates about conspiracy theories that sound outlandish or paranoid to Western ears. Turkey is 99% Muslim; in Islamist circles, the remaining 1% is a serious threat, out to secretly convert Muslims away from their faith.
Mr. Erdogan reportedly said Sunday that the protests against the pope were the efforts of "marginal people." The coming days will show just how marginal that hostility is.