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Protesters Occupy Church in Turkey

November 22, 2006

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ Police on Wednesday detained about 40 members of a Turkish nationalist party who earlier had occupied one of Istanbul’s most famous buildings, the Haghia Sophia, to protest the visit next week of Pope Benedict XVI.

The protesters belong to the Great Unity Party, a far right-wing group that has previously staged demonstrations against the planned Nov. 28-Dec. 1 visit.

They entered the 6th century former Byzantine church and mosque, shouting ``Allahu akbar!″ _ ``God is great!″ _ and then knelt to perform Islamic prayers.

They also shouted a warning to Benedict: ``Pope, don’t make a mistake, don’t wear out our patience.″

Police rounded up the protesters, loaded them into police buses and took them to a nearby police station for questioning, police said.

Benedict is scheduled to tour the Haghia Sophia, which is a source of religious sensitivity in Turkey. It was one of the world’s greatest churches for more than 1,000 years, but was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by Ottoman Turks in 1453. Today, the Haghia Sophia is a museum, and public religious ceremonies inside are forbidden.

Benedict’s first trip to a Muslim nation comes at a time of heightened tensions between the West and Islam.

The Muslim world erupted in protest after Benedict delivered a speech in September in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as ``evil and inhuman,″ particularly ``his command to spread by the sword the faith.″

Benedict has offered his regrets that his speech caused offense and has stressed that the quotes did not reflect his personal opinion. He has also expressed esteem for Islam.

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