December 1, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI, second from left, is guided by Istanbul's Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, fourth from left, in the Blue Mosque.
ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI stood in silent meditation in one of Turkey's most famous mosques Thursday in a dramatic gesture of outreach to Muslims after outrage from the pontiff's remarks linking violence and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.
The pope, accompanied by an Islamic cleric, bowed his head for nearly a minute inside the 17th century Blue Mosque in only the second papal visit to a Muslim place of worship. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, visited a mosque in Syria in 2001.
The mosque visit was added to Benedict's schedule as a "sign of respect" during his first papal trip to a Muslim nation, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said last week.
The pope removed his shoes before entering the carpeted expanse of the mosque, which is officially known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque after the Ottoman sultan Ahmet I, who ordered its construction. But it's widely called the Blue Mosque after its elaborate blue tiles.
The pope has offered wide-ranging messages of reconciliation to Muslims since arriving in Turkey on Tuesday, including appeals for greater understanding and support for Turkey's steps to become the first Muslim nation in the European Union.
But Benedict also has set down his own demands.
After a deeply symbolic display of unity with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians, the pope again repeated his calls for greater freedoms for religious minorities and described the divisions among Christians -- including the nearly 1,000-year rift between Catholics and Orthodox -- as a "scandal to the world."
Earlier, Benedict called divisions among Christians a "scandal to the world" and recalled the faith's deep roots in Europe in a joint ceremony Thursday with the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians at his ancient Christian enclave.
The pope, however, also appeared to send conflicting signals to Turkey's political establishment after suggesting there was room in the European Union for the mostly Muslim nation.
"The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world," the pope said after joining Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to mark the feast day of St. Andrew, who preached across Asia Minor and who, tradition says, ordained the first bishop of Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The symbolism of the nearly three-hour ceremony was also highly significant to Roman Catholics. Andrew was the brother of St. Peter, who was martyred in Rome and is considered the first pope.
The pope has made outreach to the world's more than 250 million Orthodox a centerpiece of his papacy and has set the difficult goal of full unity between the two ancient branches of Christianity, which split nearly 1,000 years ago over disputes including the extent of papal authority.
It is also part of the pope's drive to reinforce the Christian bonds in Europe and around the world.
He said all Christians should "renew Europe's awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality."
Benedict went to St. George Church at the start of his third day in Turkey and embraced Bartholomew I -- called the "first among equals" of the Orthodox leaders.
Thousands of police lined the pope's route in one of the biggest security operations in Turkish history.
Benedict began his pilgrimage among Turkey's tiny Christian communities on Wednesday by paying homage to an Italian priest slain during Islamic protests and expressing sympathy for the pressures facing religious minorities in the Muslim world.
The messages -- made at one of the holiest Christian sites in Turkey -- could set the tone for the remainder of Benedict's first papal trip to a Muslim nation as he tries to strengthen bonds with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.
The pope was expected to sharpen his calls for what the Vatican calls "reciprocity" -- that Muslim demands for greater respect in the West must be matched by increased tolerance and freedoms for Christians in Islamic nations.
Turkey doesn't recognize the global stature of Bartholomew and considers him only the leader of the 2,000-member Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. Turkey also has imposed restrictions on efforts to expand orthodox churches and reopen a seminary, which was closed more than 20 years ago after Turkey blocked the acceptance of new students.
But too much pressure by the pope -- who arrived in Istanbul late Wednesday -- could risk new friction with Muslims after broad gestures of goodwill in the opening hours of the trip Tuesday that sought to ease simmering Muslim anger over the pope's remarks on violence and the Prophet Mohammed.
A statement claiming to be from al Qaeda in Iraq denounced the pope's visit as part of a "crusader campaign" against Islam and an attempt to "extinguish the burning ember of Islam" in Turkey. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the declaration -- posted on several Islamic militant Web sites -- shows the need for faiths to fight "violence in the name of God."
He said "neither the pope nor his entourage are worried."
Still, Turkish authorities took massive security precautions for the Istanbul stop, with thousands of police on the street and roads cleared of all traffic for the papal motorcade.
Of Turkey's 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 23,000 are Jewish.