Papal gestures win over Turkish hosts

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • December 7, 2006
Pope visits the Istanbul, Blue MosqueISTANBUL, Turkey  - 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," 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 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.

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.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, 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," Lombardi said.

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

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