From the point of view of the media traveling on the papal plane, the first trip by Pope Benedict XVI to a Muslim country is a first in several other ways. For the first time, there was no mad rush and subsequent pileup of journalists trying to squeeze to the front of the economy section, where we travel, when the pope appeared from his place in the front before we took off.
The new press secretary, Father Federico Lombardi, had a surprise for us. We were all asked to stay in our seats, and the white-robed pope appeared and was handed the microphone. Father Lombardi, an affable, multilingual priest with a self-deprecating sense of humor, had found a way so everyone could hear, which meant we did not have to pass along whatever quotes anyone might have caught and then translate then into each of the half-dozen tongues that make up the babble in the back. Everyone got their own version and then we checked each other's translations.
The main thrust of the pontiff's message was that this was a pastoral visit, not, he underlined, a political one. That hope was shown to be faint when we arrived to another first: no formal welcoming ceremony in front of us and the assembled local press corps. No speeches were handed out, because none were delivered.
The low-key arrival was so Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Edogan could meet the pope. Erdogan, who rose to prominence in an Islamic-based political party, had tried to avoid the meeting — not least because Islamic radicals oppose the pope's visit because of a speech he made in Germany in September, in which he used a 14th-century quote that Muslims took as an offense to the Prophet Mohammed.
But no politician can resist an opportunity, and one of the best lines of the day was arguably Erdogan claiming the pope supported Turkey's efforts to become part of the European Union. When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the now-pope had been quoted as saying Muslim Turkey had no place in "Christian" Europe. The traveling media had to wait a while to hear and report the new attitude, however, because none of us got to see the meeting. Instead, we were hustled onto buses and whizzed off to either the hotel or the next event, with participants chosen on a pool basis.
Security was much in evidence, which is not unusual. But there was another first: at no point were there any cheering, adoring crowds. Not even small groups of curious onlookers as far as we saw; just a few token yellow and white papal banners wafting ever so slightly in the haze that passes for air here. But then, 99 percent of Turkey's 70 million people are Muslims, and if local newspaper headlines are to be believed, they don't want much to do with the pope anyway, other than to hear him say he's sorry for his remarks. One populist newspaper headline summed it up with the words: "Message to the Pope: Islam is peace."