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Protests mar Turkish president's meeting with Pope

Pope Francis (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose during a private audience at the Vatican, on February 5, 2018. (Photo by Reuters)

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on an official visit to Rome, some 150 Kurdish and Italian protesters clash with police officers in front of the Vatican after the demonstrators staged a rally to express their opposition to Turkey's military operation in Syria’s northwestern region of Afrin.

Police have put much of the center of the city under lockdown for the visit, the first by a Turkish president to the Vatican in 59 years.

According to the police, two people were arrested in the authorized demonstration outside nearby Castel Sant'Angelo, a fortress on the banks of the River Tiber, after it turned violent when police pushed back shouting and shoving protesters who tried to break through cordons to get closer to the Vatican.

Some 3,500 police and security forces were on duty in Rome and authorities declared a no-go area for unauthorized demonstrations that included the Vatican, Erdogan's hotel and Italian palaces.

Turkey has been pressing ahead with the so-called Olive Branch operation against militants from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin since January 20.

Ankara considers the US-backed YPG to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is fighting for independence in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

The Turkish incursion in Afrin started after the United States said it sought to set up a thousand-strong force in Syria near the Turkish border comprising the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is led by the YPG.

Erdogan held 50-minute private talks with Pope Francis in the pontiff's frescoed study in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, returning pope's visit to Turkey in 2014.

A Vatican statement said the talks included "the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region (Middle East) through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law."

Both the Turkish leader and the Pope are against US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Israeli regime while many Washington's allies believe that the move could doom peace efforts in the Middle East.

On December 6, the US president announced his decision to recognize Jerusalem al-Quds as Israel’s capital and relocate the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem al-Quds.

The United Nations General Assembly on December 21 overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution that calls on the US to withdraw its controversial recognition of Jerusalem al-Quds as the Israeli capital.

The Turkish president on December 30 once again criticized his American counterpart's recognition of Jerusalem al-Quds as the "capital" of Israel, stressing that the Israeli-occupied city is of great value to all Muslims.

Addressing the 16th Islamic Circle of North America-Muslim American Society Convention in Chicago, the United States, via a video link, Erdogan said Jerusalem al-Quds was the “red line for all Muslims,” calling on Muslims “not to allow anyone to divide them on the basis of ethnic, sectarian or cultural differences.”

In a telephone conversation in December following Trump's announcement on al-Quds, Erdogan and the pope agreed that any change to the city's status quo should be avoided.

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At the end of the private part of the Monday meeting, the pope gave Erdogan a bronze medallion showing an angel embracing the northern and southern hemispheres while overcoming the opposition of a dragon.

"This is the angel of peace who strangles the demon of war," the pope told Erdogan and said the medallion is a "symbol of a world based on peace and justice."

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