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CURRENT ISSUE:  December 11, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 22Oakland, CA

Visit to Turkey
Pope’s spontaneous gestures
become historic moments

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNS) -- During his four-day trip to Turkey, Pope Benedict XVI, known for his precise and incisive words, showed he was also a master of the spontaneous gesture.

While his scholarly words in a September lecture in Germany offended millions of Muslims, his prayer in an Istanbul mosque surprised and delighted many of them.

For papal watchers the contrast between the tones of his reference to Muslims and violence in Germany and his silent prayer in the Blue Mosque was not the only surprise. Pope Benedict was supposed to be the pope of strong words in contrast to Pope John Paul II, the pope of strong gestures.

The silent prayer facing Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, also seemed to be in contrast to the predictions of pundits who assured the world that Pope Benedict would be more challenging than conciliatory with the world’s Muslim believers.

Retired French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a close aide to Pope John Paul and a member of Pope Benedict’s entourage in Turkey, told reporters Dec. 1: “I would compare the visit of the pope to the mosque to the gesture of John Paul II at the Western Wall,” the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem where Pope John Paul in 2000 deposited a prayer asking God’s forgiveness for the ways Christians had mistreated the Jews.

Pope Benedict’s prayer at the mosque and Pope John Paul’s prayer in Jerusalem “are two very important symbolic moments,” Cardinal Etchegaray said. “In both cases, we did not expect it.”

Judging simply by what Pope Benedict had said were his objectives in visiting Turkey, the trip was a success.

Setting off from Rome at the beginning of the Nov. 28-Dec. 1 visit, the pope said the point of the trip was the contacts he would make and the friendship and respect they would demonstrate.

While the pope received a warm welcome from the moment he got off the plane in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, any remaining hesitation on the part of the Turkish people melted when the pope prayed in the Istanbul mosque on his last night in the country.

From the beginning, the trip was planned as an occasion for the pope to pay his respects to Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. After a prayer service, two liturgies, private meetings and a lunch, the brotherhood the pope and patriarch publicly professed also appeared publicly demonstrated.

But given the tensions present before the trip with both the Turkish government and the country’s Muslim majority, Pope Benedict’s positive encounters with Muslims stole the headlines. Even the Turkish papers, initially lukewarm to the idea of a papal visit, were impressed.

The daily Hurriyet reported Dec. 1: “The pope, who earned sympathy with words in the spirit of an apology to Muslims, continued to surprise the world.”

The paper, like much of the world, particularly was struck by his prayer alongside a Muslim cleric in the mosque.

Hurriyet reported the pope “turned toward Mecca and prayed like a Muslim.”

The Dec. 1 English-language Turkish Daily News headline read: “The pope is winning hearts and minds.”

And the article described the pope’s visit as “a moment of reconciliation” with the country’s majority Muslim population.
As he was setting off from Rome Nov. 28, the pope had told reporters traveling with him that they should not have exaggerated expectations of such a short trip.

“The value (of the trip) I would say is symbolic, the fruit of the encounters themselves, of encounters in friendship and respect.”
When the trip was over Dec. 1, one would only have to look at photographs of the pope with government officials, Muslim representatives and leaders of the Orthodox churches to see that a connection was made.

After a 30-minute free-flowing discussion Nov. 28 with Ali Bardakoglu, the country’s top Muslim official, the two appeared before reporters grasping both of each other’s hands.

And after attending Patriarch Bartholomew’s celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the Orthodox cathedral, the two blessed a small crowd together before the patriarch took the pope’s hand and held it aloft as they waved.

Even some of the obligatory gifts given during the trip seemed to conspire to carry a positive message, particularly when they were coincidentally similar, as they were at the Blue Mosque.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, pointed out that doves -- the symbol of peace -- were the main feature on the blue tile Istanbul’s grand mufti gave to the pope and on the mosaic Pope Benedict gave to the mufti.

And, before leaving Istanbul Dec. 1, the pope released four white doves from the courtyard of the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.
Father Lombardi told reporters late Nov. 30, “It seems we’ve gone well beyond expectations.”

Not only were there no confrontations with Muslims over what the pope said in Germany in September, but the Germany speech seemed to give way to a new look at “the theme of relations between Christians and Muslims with serenity and depth, seeking to make important clarifications on both sides,” Father Lombardi said.

“With this visit, this particular act in the mosque, I think we have taken significant steps forward,” he said.

Pope Benedict XVI and Mustafa Cagrici, the grand mufti of Istanbul, pray in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 30. When the mufti said he was going to pray, the pope bowed his head, folded his hands and moved his lips in silence for about a minute.


Pope Benedict XVI and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople greet the faithful from the balcony of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 30.

Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sign a joint declaration committing the Catholic and Orthodox churches to continuing dialogue and greater practical cooperation, especially in promoting Christian values in increasingly secularized societies. The signing took place in the Orthodox Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul, Nov. 30.

Pope Benedict XVI, flanked by honor guards in Ankara, bows during a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Nov. 28.

Pope Benedict XVI releases a dove Dec. 1 during a visit to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul on the final day of his four-day visit to Turkey.

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