Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (R) greets visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Rome, Italy, on Feb. 5, 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a 24-hour visit to the capital city and Vatican City on Monday, with a major focus on Turkey's accession to the European Union (EU) and the status of Jerusalem. (Xinhua/Alberto Lingria)
by Alessandra Cardone
ROME, Feb. 5 (Xinhua) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a 24-hour visit to the capital city and Vatican City on Monday, with a major focus on Turkey's accession to the European Union (EU) and the status of Jerusalem.
The visit took place under tight security, with a 3,500-strong police force deployed across Rome, and all demonstrations banned within a "green zone" set by the interior ministry around the city center.
Erdogan discussed bilateral ties and the issue of the EU membership with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella and Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano.
The meeting was "respectful and frank", yet both sides restated their "long-standing positions" -- in Italy's case, in line with that of the EU -- Ansa news agency reported, citing sources from the presidential staff.
The Turkish leader then had talks with Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at the government palace. No press conference with Italian media was held after the two official meetings.
In the morning, Erdogan had paid a historic visit to the Vatican -- the first by a Turkish president in 59 years -- and met with Pope Francis.
The two leaders had "cordial discussions" on the situation in Turkey, the condition of the Catholic community there, and Turkey's efforts in receiving and hosting refugees, according to a Vatican statement.
They also addressed "the situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem."
In an interview with La Stampa daily ahead of his visit, Erdogan said he felt committed to "protecting the status quo" of Jerusalem, after the unilateral decision of U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize it as Israel's capital and promised to relocate the U.S. embassy there from its current location in Tel Aviv. The Pope had expressed the same concerns over Trump's statement in December.
Protests were banned within the maximum-security restricted area, but not in the rest of Rome, and an authorized demonstration took place at Castel Sant'Angelo near the Vatican in the morning. It drew some 150 demonstrators, including members of the Italian network of solidarity with Kurdistan, leftist activists, and representatives from Italy's journalist union FNSI.
Protesters criticized Erdogan for the ongoing anti-Kurdish military campaign in Syria's northern Afrin enclave, and for the arrest of dozens of journalists in Turkey in recent years.
Scuffles with police broke out when some demonstrators tried to break through the barriers and reach St. Peter's Square. At least one protester was reportedly injured, and two people were detained.
The visit was criticized by some political forces as well. The leader of right-wing, anti-immigrant Northern League, Matteo Salvini, said on Twitter it was "a shame" for the Italian government to receive the president of a "bloody regime".
Far-right Brothers of Italy party also protested, expressing on Twitter their stand against "Turkey in Europe".