The Vatican is so anxious about the Pope’s safety during his trip to Turkey this week that it has vetoed use of the traditional “Popemobile”.
Instead, Pope Benedict XVI will travel in an armour-plated car, with several similar vehicles used as decoys, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the former papal spokesman, said.
Officials have also drawn up contingency plans for him to wear a bulletproof vest beneath his papal vestments as Turkish authorities mount a huge security operation including rooftop snipers, special forces, helicopters and navy speedboats.
Before his first visit to a Muslim country, the Pope tried to defuse further protests yesterday, sending “cordial greetings” of “esteem and sincere friendship” to “the dear Turkish people” when he addressed pilgrims from his window above St Peter’s Square during Angelus prayers.
Papal aides confirmed that, in a conciliatory gesture to Muslims, the Pope had altered his official programme to include a visit to the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet, in Istanbul.
He will be the second Pope to set foot in a mosque, after John Paul II in Damascus in 2001.
In a reciprocal gesture Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, indicated that he would “find time” after all to meet the Pope tomorrow at Ankara airport. He insisted that his absence during the Pope’s trip because of a Nato summit in Riga was not a “snub”. The Pope was “welcome” in Turkey, “but whoever comes here must show respect for the Prophet Muhammad”.
The exchanges reflect last-minute efforts on both sides to calm the tensions inflamed by the Pope’s Regensburg speech in September, which referred to Islam as “evil” and “violent”.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the pontifical Council for Christian Unity, one of five cardinals accompanying the Pope, conceded that the trip had become a “minefield”.
He told The Times that the Pope’s aim was to promote dialogue between faiths, even though the original focus had been Catholic reconciliation with the Orthodox Church.
Cardinal Kasper said that the Pope’s encounter on St Andrew’s Day with Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, at the end of his trip remained “of fundamental importance”, as did protection of the Christian minority in Turkey. The two Christian leaders hope to move towards a healing of the 1,000-year-old schism between Latin and Eastern Christianity.
As a cardinal the Pope spoke out against the bid for EU membership by Turkey on religious and cultural grounds. Yesterday Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, said the Vatican hoped that Turkey would “fulfil the conditions for EU entry”.
Behind the scenes Vatican and Italian security forces have planned for the worst, with agents joining Turkish police in checking security arrangements in Ankara, Istanbul and Ephesus, the main stops on the Pope’s tour.
Video surveillance cameras have been installed around key buildings, including the Holy See embassy in Ankara, where the Pope will stay on the first night of his trip after paying respects at the Mausoleum of Ataturk. Turkish police appealed for restraint at planned protests, saying that they could harm the image of Turkey.
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