ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Pope Francis arrived in Turkey on Friday at a sensitive moment for the Muslim nation, as it cares for 1.6 million refugees and weighs how to deal with the Islamic State group as its fighters grab chunks of Syria and Iraq across Turkey's southern border.
Francis was expected to use his opening speeches to denounce the violence being committed in God's name by the extremists, and to express solidarity with the Christians and other religious minorities who have been targeted by the onslaught, massacred or forced to leave their homes.
The pope was greeting by a line of Turkish dignitaries, headed by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, as he descended the steps of his plane at Ankara's Esenboga Airport. He inspected and greeted Turkish honor guards before heading to the mausoleum of the Turkish republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, where he laid a wreath.
Francis paid tribute to Turkey's willingness to host so many refugees during a brief encounter with journalists aboard the papal plane, praising its humanitarian response to "so many refugees from conflict zones."
The three-day visit will give Francis a chance to reach out to Turkey's tiny Christian community — less than 1 percent of Turks are Catholic — and visit with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
Meet Pope Francis, First South American Pontiff
Francis, The Soccer Pope
Pope Francis Visits Brazil In First International Trip
Latinos Await the Next Pope
Where's The Popemobile? Pope Travels Through South Korea In A Kia
The Varginha Favela: Pope Francis' Visit Brings Hope To Brazil's Poor
Argentine Cardinal Elected Pope
Will Pope Francis use real-world experience to transform?
Francis will tour two of Istanbul's most impressive sites, the Hagia Sofia complex — the Byzantine church-turned-mosque that is now a museum — and the nearby Sultan Ahmet mosque, Turkey's most important place of Muslim worship.
Security will be tight: Turkish media reports said some 2,700 police officers would be on duty during the Ankara leg of the trip alone, and that a court had issued an order allowing police to stop and search cars and carry out random identity checks on people along routes used by the pope.
On the eve of his trip, Francis repeated that it was legitimate to use force to stop the Islamic State advance, but only with the endorsement of the international community. Asked whether dialogue was even possible with a group that is targeting religious minorities, Francis said "Maybe you can't have a dialogue, but you must never close the door."
Francis will wade into some local controversy when he is received Friday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his huge new palace in Ankara, a 1,000-room complex on once-protected farmland and forest that dwarfs the White House and other European government palaces.
Francis, whose spartan living conditions are well-known, will spend Friday afternoon at the $620 million White Palace, meeting with the president, prime minister and delivering a speech to Turkish dignitaries and diplomatic corps.
The Vatican has dismissed a request by the Ankara branch of the Turkish Chamber of Architects to boycott the meeting, saying Francis would be received wherever the government chose to receive him.