ISTANBUL, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict ended a sensitive fence-mending visit to Turkey on Friday amid praise for visiting Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque and praying there facing towards Mecca “like Muslims”.
The Pope, who sparked protests across the Muslim world with a speech two months ago seen as criticising Islam, looked relaxed and pleased as he entered the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit for a mass at the end of the sensitive four-day trip. His first visit to a mostly Muslim country, held under tight security for fear of protests by nationalists and Islamists, was highlighted by a series of conciliatory gestures culminating in a stop on Thursday afternoon in Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque.
Istanbul Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, who prayed with him there, said Benedict had faced Mecca and stood like Muslims do when they pray aright. “These were very nice gestures,” he told NTV television. “The Pope’s dreaded visit was concluded with a wonderful surprise,” wrote daily Aksam on its front page. “In Sultan Ahmet Mosque, he turned towards Mecca and prayed like Muslims,” the popular daily Hurriyet said, using the building’s official name. His gestures, including support for Ankara’s bid to join the European Union and praise for Islam as a peaceful faith, seem to have persuaded the Turks to move beyond the tension following his speech quoting a Byzantine emperor as calling Islam violent.
But in Islam’s Middle Eastern heartland, Arab commentators still call for Benedict to issue a full apology for his speech.
Shocked by the protests it triggered, the Pope has said he did not agree with the controversial quote but has not apologised.
Catholic officials also presented the mosque visit as a key moment of reconciliation. “I would compare the Pope’s visit to the mosque to Pope John Paul’s gestures at the Western Wall,” said veteran Vatican mediator Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, referring to Pope John Paul II’s prayers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 2000. “Yesterday, Benedict did with the Muslims what John Paul did with the Jews.”
Benedict told Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler at the city’s airport that his visit to the Blue Mosque and the nearby Aya Sofya museum, once a Christian church and then a mosque, had “left a lasting impression” on him. “A part of my heart stays here in Istanbul,” he added. His plane later left for Rome.
The trip brought out the diplomat in the theologian who was expected to take a tougher stand on Islam than his more outgoing predecessor John Paul.
Benedict did press during the trip for more freedom of religion in Turkey and by extension in other mostly Muslim countries, but not in the confrontational way some Church officials expected after he was elected Pope in April 2005. There were only scattered protests against the visit.
Before the mass, Benedict released doves of peace in the courtyard in front of Istanbul’s Roman Catholic cathedral and blessed a statue of John XXIII, who was Pope from 1958 to 1963.
Among the clergy attending the mass was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians. The two signed a joint declaration on Thursday pledging to continue work to bring together their churches split in the Great Schism in 1054.