Pope's outreach eases Muslim wariness

In Turkey, Pope Benedict XVI supported Turkey's bid to enter the European Union and visited a key mosque.

Marshaling all his powers of persuasion, Pope Benedict XVI is marking his visit to Turkey with glowing words about Islam, in a bid to calm widespread Muslim anger over his quoting in September a 14th-century emperor, who held that the prophet Muhammad brought "things only evil and inhuman" to the world.

In a powerful symbolic gesture, Pope Benedict Thursday night visited Istanbul's magnificent Blue Mosque, becoming only the second pope in history to enter a Muslim place of prayer.

Hosted by the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Imam Mustafa Cagrici, the pontiff took off his shoes at the entrance – the common Muslim practice – and held a respectful moment of silence beneath the soaring ceiling and ornately tiled walls.

In sharp contrast to recent images of Muslim anger, including burning effigies of the pope, the two leaders exchanged gifts with a "doves of peace" theme. Despite lingering doubts among Turks about Pope Benedict's sincerity, analysts say the pope's fence-mending effort is working.

"The pope's visit to Turkey and his messages to ... the Muslim world have a symbolic value; he's really reached the hearts of the people," says Nilufer Narli, a political sociologist and Islamist expert at Bahcehir University. "His message can play an important role in easing tensions. I think he knows it, now."

But many ordinary Turks aren't convinced. "I don't think he is sincere, because he changed his mind," says Neslihan Kurt, who works in a leather purse shop.

She says she was "angry like everyone else" over the papal comments in September, but concedes that "maybe by his visit, he is really trying to change, to improve things."

Pope Benedict also came bearing another, unexpected gift, which reverses his own public position taken in his prepapacy days as Cardinal Ratzinger: support for Turkey to join the European Union (EU) at a time of deepening skepticism in Europe about the Muslim state's candidacy.

Vatican support of the EU bid is especially significant now, after a recommendation by the EU on Wednesday to freeze eight areas of policy discussion, because of Turkey's refusal to recognize Cyprus, and not open Turkish ports to Cypriot ships.

Turkey instead is the only nation in the world to recognize the Turkish Cypriot ministate of northern Cyprus, where Turkish troops have been deployed since 1974 to support ethnic Turks on the divided island.

The pope's support is "important" for Turkey's EU bid, wrote the daily Milliyet newspaper. "This is a big warning for conservative politicians who think the EU is a Christian club."

Throughout his days here, the pope has chosen language that appeals to Turks' deep sense of nationalism – this "noble land" and it's "glorious past," he said, yielded a "great modern state" – and its aspiration to be seen as equal to European nations.

Coupled with effusive papal praise of Islam, by which Turkey presided over a "remarkable flowering of Islamic civilization," the pope's attempt to prove his "great esteem for Muslims" has had some effect on a skeptical public.

"As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was very well known for opposing Turkey's EU prospects, naming Turkey as culturally and religiously different, with no place in Europe," says Cengiz Candar, a columnist for Bugun newspaper, and the English-language New Anatolian.

"But now as Pope Benedict XVI ... he wants to see, as the Catholic Church, Turkey in Europe," says Mr. Candar. "It's a very radical departure from what we know of Cardinal Ratzinger's opinion on Turkey."

That change represents an "evolution" in thinking, after the pope's previous remarks that "if not hostile, were careless and inappropriate," says Candar. "It is not the way a pope would like to be perceived by millions, even billions of people around the world, even if they declare a different faith."

In addition to reaching out to Muslims, the pontiff sought to improve relations within the global Christian community as well. In a bid to heal the millennium-old rift between the Catholic and Orthodox churches – the original purpose of his trip – he held a prayer service with the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew.

The two leaders, who raised their clasped hands above their heads like victorious sportsmen, are seeking to further unification efforts begun in 1965 between the world's 250 million Orthodox faithful and 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

"The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel," said the pope.

But in the shops and stalls of Istanbul, it was the pope's efforts to bridge the perceived divide between Christianity and Islam that drew locals into debate.

"We think his visit is a pleasant thing, to bring the Christian and Islamic worlds together," says Dogan Met, who was visiting a women's dress shop. "He made some mistakes [and] did not apologize, but in his visit here I find him sincere. He's regretful."

"Why do you think he didn't apologize?" asks Semih Akoz, looking over at Mr. Met. "Do you think human beings never make mistakes? Even the pope?"

"Football is more important than the pope," says Mr. Akoz, a self-described Islamist who had several Turkish newspapers open in front of him to the sports pages. "I don't think the pope's [negative] point of view will change toward the Islamic world. There's been a very old way of thinking for centuries, that the Islamic world is a source of terrorism."

"I think his messages are solving the problem," counters Met, coming to the pope's defense.

"The important thing is that he keep to the words he said here, and not go back to the old words when he leaves Turkey.

"The whole world is watching," adds Met. "I don't think he will change back."

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