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Pope’s Visit to Turkey Leader Erdogan’s Ak Saray Stirs Controversy

Image: Turkey's new Presidential Palace at night

Turkey's new Presidential Palace, built inside Ataturk Forest Farm. Anadolu Agency / Getty Images, file

ISTANBUL — He's championed austerity, condemned greed and been dubbed "The People's Pope." But during a visit to Ankara on Friday, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit a new $615-million palace seen by many Turks as a symbol of excess and their president’s autocratic rule.

The pontiff will become the first foreign dignitary to visit the 1,000-room presidential residence that's been nicknamed Ak Saray — or "White Palace." Some of the building's critics have urged him to cancel his visit for fear it would condone a construction project they deem not just extravagant, but illegal.

The palace is the largest presidential residence in the world. It is 30 times the size of the White House.

Not only does the lavish structure appear at odds with the pope’s frugal philosophy, it was constructed on environmentally protected farmland. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ignored a court injunction ordering its construction be halted.

Pope Francis Visits Turkey Where Few Christians Live 2:12

"We don’t want the pope to legitimize the construction, which is illegal according to international laws," Tezcan Karakuş Candan, head of Ankara’s Chamber of Architects, told NBC News. "We are fighting to preserve the Atatürk Forest Farm and will try to stop every foreign dignitary from going there."

Atatürk Forest Farm was donated to the state in 1937 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose mausoleum the pontiff will visit earlier Friday. The land has been an environmentally protected site for more than two decades.

An administrative court ordered construction to be suspended earlier this year. But Erdoğan ignored the ruling. "Let them tear it down if they can," he said, according to Al-Monitor. "They ordered suspension, yet they can’t stop this building. I'll be opening it, I'll be moving in and using it."

Image: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoga
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the new Presidential Palace on October 29. KAYHAN OZER / Turkish Presidency via EPA

Defending the construction at recent budget talks, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said economic conditions were better today than when large amounts of public money were spent on palaces in the past. According to Hurriyet, he said it was more accurate to call the complex a "service building" rather than a "palace" and said there had been a "smear campaign" against the project.

The pope’s commitment to a relatively humble life has seen him take the name of a saint known for a life of poverty and simplicity. He also refused to take up residency in the official papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace in favor of a modest room within the Vatican.

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But the Vatican confirmed that the pontiff intended to go ahead with the meeting.

"As you know, a palace is not built in one day, work on it started a long time before the pope decided to visit Turkey," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said. "This has been an ongoing issue in Turkey for a long time and is not linked to the pope’s visit. When the pope is invited somewhere, he goes wherever the president decides to receive him, as any other educated person would."