ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Dozens of young Turkish men, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), occupied Istanbul’s renowned Aya Sofya museum on Wednesday in a protest ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to the former church next week.
One officer sprayed tear gas as police detained the men, pursuing them in the darkness below the dome of the 6th century building, one of Turkey’s top tourist attractions. Police arrested 39 demonstrators shouting anti-Pope slogans.
Television images showed the young men, illuminated by lamps in the darkness, performing Muslim prayers. Police looked on before detaining them. There were no reports of any injuries.
The Pope’s controversial visit to the predominantly Muslim country is expected to trigger more protests from Islamist and nationalist groups before he arrives in Turkey on November 28.
Turkish officials, like much of the Muslim world, expressed anger in September after the Pope made comments taken as indicating he believed Islam was violent and irrational. They are now billing the visit as an opportunity to heal the wounds.
State-run Anatolian news agency said police had first urged tourists to leave the building in the heart of the old city and surrounded by monuments from its Byzantine and Ottoman history.
“Don’t make a mistake Pope, don’t try our patience,” the men chanted, holding up a Turkish flag and a banner identifying them as being from an Istanbul branch of the “Alperen Ocaklari” (Alperen Association), an ultra-nationalist and Islamist group.
The group is considered to be an offshoot of the “Grey Wolves”, a Turkish right-wing militant group dating back to the 1970s. The man who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a member of the “Grey Wolves”.
At the Vatican, chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Holy See was not overly worried about the latest anti-Pope protest.
“I still consider these episodes limited enough not to put in doubt the substance or atmosphere of the trip, which we think will take place in a calm way,” he said.
Security forces are bracing for large protests. The Islamist Felicity Party plans to ferry 75,000 people by bus to Istanbul on Sunday to protest, though many more are expected.
“We don’t want to see in our country a Pope who is insidious enough to plan under cover his modern crusader aggression and ignorant enough to describe the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist,” the party said in its invitation to the protest.
“Turkish people would never accept this visit and millions will gather to express their feelings,” the Felicity Party’s Istanbul head Osman Yumakogullari told a news conference.
Pope Benedict’s trip will include a visit to Aya Sofya.
Controversy surrounds the museum, originally the Byzantine Empire’s Hagia Sophia church, which is regarded by many as one of the greatest buildings in the world.
It was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and became a museum in 1935. Turkish nationalists regularly voice anger at what they say are attempts to turn it back into a church.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Vatican City