- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

ISTANBUL — Pope Benedict XVI concluded a historic trip to the Muslim world yesterday after soothing an outraged Islamic population with his Christian message of peace and reconciliation.

The Roman Catholic pontiff wound up his triumphant four-day visit to Turkey with a parting message of good will to Muslims as Turkish clerics and commentators lauded the German-born pope for facing Mecca as he prayed alongside a top Islamic clergyman in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on Thursday.

“You know well that the church wishes to impose nothing on anyone, and that she merely asks to live in freedom,” Benedict said at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Istanbul.

In the last of several gestures aimed at healing the rift with the Orthodox Church — the original theme of a trip that was overshadowed by Muslim rage — the pope was joined in the church by Patriarch Bartholomew I.

Benedict looked pleased as he entered the cathedral after doing much to repair the uproar he started two months ago by criticizing Islam in a speech in Germany.

The grand mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, who prayed side by side with the pope at the mosque on Thursday, said Benedict had faced Mecca while praying, like a Muslim would.

“These were very nice gestures,” he told NTV television. “I allocated 30, 40 seconds for [the prayer]. I finished my prayer. But the pope must have been so overcome that he took much longer.”

The Turkish daily Askam agreed. “The pope’s dreaded visit was concluded with a wonderful surprise,” it reported.

The mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper joined in the chorus of approval. “He turned toward Mecca and prayed like Muslims,” said the daily, which dubbed Benedict “the congenial pope.”

Vatican officials described the stop at the massive mosque, one of the main tourist attractions in Istanbul, as a vital moment of reconciliation.

Throughout his trip, however, the pope also gently stressed Rome’s concept of reciprocity in which respect for Muslims in the West warrants respect for religious minorities such as Christians and Jews in majority Muslim lands, including the beleaguered community of 90,000 Christians in Turkey.

“Your communities walk the humble path of daily companionship with those who do not share our faith,” the pope told the congregation filling a 160-year-old cathedral that contains the relics of a 1st-century Christian martyr.

Strengthening Christian bonds should be “at the forefront,” Benedict told the throng.

“I would compare the pope’s visit to the mosque to Pope John Paul’s gesture at the Western Wall [in Jerusalem], said Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, the veteran French Vatican diplomat who frequently is a trouble-shooter for the Holy See in the Middle East.

In his last moments in Turkey, the 79-year-old pope walked down a red carpet before boarding a special Turkish Airlines jetliner to Rome.

“I hope this visit contributes to peace and dialogue between faiths,” Benedict told the governor of Istanbul, Muammer Guler, at Istanbul’s international airport.

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