Pope ends Turkey trip with visit to mosque

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The Independent Online

Benedict XVI became only the second pope in history to step inside a mosque. It was a fitting end to a trip which had had the potential to become the most disastrous papal visit in living memory. Instead, Benedict flies home today after his four-day visit to Turkey with compliments ringing in his ears.

The polemical German pope, "God's rottweiler" as he was known when still a cardinal, has gone a long way towards neutralising the hostility he aroused in September when he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor describing Islam as "evil and inhuman".

Outside Hagia Sofia yesterday, Istanbul's immense church-turned-mosque-turned museum, a solitary woman held up a placard that read: "God's curses on he who stuck his tongue out at the Prophet. The Pope is the enemy of the Turks."

She got plenty of attention from television cameras with nothing else to film, but despite or perhaps because of al-Qa'ida saying roughly the same thing, such sentiments became rarer as the week progressed. The Pope made "a good start" said Turkish daily Hurriyet, by giving his support to Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

"Reason has prevailed on all sides" said a columnist in the Turkish Daily News. "The majority of Turks are happy that the visit is going well and that the Pope has been so conciliatory in his remarks." If the Pope regrets that the real debate over religion and violence which he tried to kick off with his address in September has been deferred, he kept his feelings to himself.

Yesterday, Benedict, whom some Vatican-watchers had felt was putting his predecessor's policy of seeking amity with Islam into reverse, made a historic visit to Sultanahmet, the "Blue Mosque," opposite Hagia Sofia, a date written into his diary at the last minute and which had the potential to have explosive consequences. But the pontiff impressed his hosts by removing shoes and socks, and once inside he bowed his head in silent meditation for over a minute.

As the controversy has receded, the emotion of the visit of a figure like this has become striking, the sense of a man wading through a terrain dense with history: triumphs and disasters, glory and schism. In Hagia Sofia, Benedict was shown some of the golden frescoes, among the oldest Christian works of art, that adorn the magnificent building's walls. Once the church became a mosque, they were covered with black paint in the zeal to obliterate every trace of idolatry. Many of them are still hidden. He spent Wednesday evening and much of Thursday with Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. The two men are trying to get unity talks between Catholics and Orthodox back on track after years of stagnation.

The man known as "the Green Patriarch" found Benedict in ready agreement on environmental questions. "As religious leaders we consider it one of our duties to encourage... all efforts made to protect God's Creation, and to bequeath to future generations a world in which they will be able to live," the two men said in a joint declaration. "The divisions among Christians are a scandal to the world," the Pope said after an Orthodox ceremony yesterday lasting nearly three hours. All Christians, he said, should "renew Europe's awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values".

The fact that such sentiments were not seen by thin-skinned Turks as another papal slap in the face was a credit to the Pope's painstaking diplomacy - and his qualified support for Turkey's entry into the EU, practically the first thing he said on touching down in the country, and the biggest surprise of the visit.