ISTANBUL, Turkey – Tens of thousands of Turks protested Sunday against Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to this predominantly Muslim country.
Police said some 25,000 people joined the demonstration, the largest anti-pope protest so far ahead of Benedict's arrival Tuesday. Some 4,000 officers backed by riot trucks, armored vehicles and helicopters monitored the protest as the crowd grew.
The protest was organized by a pro-Islamic political party called Felicity whose leaders have said they were offended by Benedict's comments linking violence and Islam.
Benedict, who is making his first trip as pope to a predominantly Muslim country, has expressed regret for offending Muslims by his remarks and said they did not reflect his personal views.
Protesters shouted "God is great" in Arabic and carried posters asking the pope not to come to Turkey. They also draped signs on the way from the Istanbul airport.
Some banners accused Benedict of encouraging terrorism by linking Islam and violence. Many simply called on the pope to apologize.
In a speech in September in his native Germany, the pontiff quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."
The remarks set off a wave of reproaches and anti-Vatican protests across the Muslim world, including in Turkey.
"The pope was disrespectful to us and he needs to apologize," a banner at Sunday's demonstration said.
Seafetin Tuleg, 70, wrapped himself in a Felicity Party flag and said Muslims revered the Jewish and Christian prophets but did not receive the same respect for their own.
"We love Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, but the pope doesn't love Muhammad and Islam," he said.
Kubra Yigitoglu, 20, attending the protest in a head scarf, ankle-length coat and cowboy boots, called Turkey "an Islamic republic" and said, "the pope is not wanted here."
Officially, Turkey is a rigidly secular republic, though around 99 percent of its population is Muslim.
Benedict has few fans in Turkey, which is hoping to become the first predominantly Muslim member of the European Union. Benedict had previously spoken out against Turkey's EU bid, and has called for a return to fundamental Christian values in Europe.
Benedict is scheduled to stay for four days. He will meet the Istanbul-based leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew I.
In the Vatican on Sunday, Benedict expressed his "feelings of esteem and of sincere friendship" for Turks and their leaders, and the Vatican spokesman confirmed that the pope would visit Istanbul's Blue Mosque as "a sign of respect" to Muslims.