Pope Francis makes first visit to Turkey

ANKARA:  Pope Francis begins his first visit to Turkey on Friday in a challenging trip aimed at building bridges with Islam and supporting the embattled Christian minorities of the Middle East.

The pope will spend the first of three days in Turkey in the capital Ankara, notably holding a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his newly-constructed and hugely controversial presidential palace.

The 77-year-old Argentine pope will move to Istanbul on Saturday and Sunday, visiting key sites of the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman heritage as well as meeting the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

The trip appears less controversial than the last by a pontiff to mainly Muslim Turkey —  the visit by Pope Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI in 2006 which was overshadowed by remarks he had previously made deemed to be anti-Islamic.

But the security of the pope will be paramount for the Turkish authorities.

The close contact with crowds that have been such a feature of the past trips by the charismatic head of the Roman Catholic Church are not expected to feature in Turkey.

Some 2,700 police are set to supervise his visit in Ankara, a number that will rise to 7,000 in Istanbul.

There have also been calls on the pope not to meet Erdogan at his vast presidential palace which has 1,000 rooms, costing no less than $615 million (500 million euros) and seen by critics as an authoritarian extravagance.

But the Vatican has refused to be drawn into the polemic, saying it is merely accepting the invitation by the hosts for the pope, who will be by far the most important visitor so far at the palace.