Silent Prayer, Words of Hope as Pope Visits Mosque
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 1, 2006; A21
ISTANBUL, Nov. 30 -- Pope Benedict XVI slipped out of his red Prada loafers and padded in white slippered feet across the carpeted floor of Istanbul's revered Blue Mosque on Thursday, in only the second papal visit ever to a Muslim house of worship.Near the end of the tour, the pope's host, Istanbul's chief cleric, Mustafa Cagrici, said quietly, "Now, I'm going to pray." The Christian world's most powerful leader lowered his eyes and appeared to mouth his own brief, silent prayer as the lights of the mosque glinted off the heavy gold cross nestled against his white frock.
For just under a minute, Benedict stood facing Mecca alongside the Islamic cleric beneath the exquisite blue-tiled dome of one of the world's most famous mosques, a visual gesture of reverence to a Muslim world he angered in September by quoting a Byzantine emperor who accused Islam of embracing violence.
"Thank you for this moment of prayer," the pope told Cagrici as they shuffled out of the cavernous 17th-century structure, known formally as Sultan Ahmet Mosque
, with Benedict's white stocking slippers peeking from beneath his floor-length robes. In Islam, it is forbidden to wear shoes inside a mosque.
"This visit will help us find together the way of peace for the good of all humanity," the pope said.
"A single swallow can't bring spring," Cagrici told the pope. "But many swallows will follow, and we will enjoy a spring in this world."
Some Turks were angry that the Roman Catholic leader, on his first trip to a Muslim country in the 19 months he has been pope, entered a mosque. Police dispersed a few dozen demonstrators who protested outside the Blue Mosque several hours before Benedict's arrival.
Others welcomed the pope's gestures of goodwill. "Each message the pope gives in Turkey is important," said Ali Adakoglu, editor of Gercek Hayat, a weekly magazine popular among conservative Muslim university students. "It's important not only for Turkey, but for the world, which could have a clash of civilizations."
Adakoglu added, "But is he saying nice things only for the sake of being polite, or is he really behind his warm messages?"
Snipers stood guard in the mosque's minarets. Just before the pope arrived, the wail of the call to prayer competed with the rumble of helicopters policing the area from above, part of the stringent security precautions Turkey has taken for the pontiff's four-day trip, which ends Friday.
Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, made the first papal visit to a mosque, in Damascus in 2001. Benedict added the Blue Mosque to his itinerary as an overture to Muslims and Turkish nationalists suspicious of his visits here with leaders of Orthodox and Armenian Christian churches, who have complained of discrimination and repression in Turkey.
Benedict's tour has tested his diplomatic skills as he treads carefully across the fault lines of religious conflict both modern and ancient. He has used the trip not only to try to mend his relations with the Muslim world, but also to try to improve the Vatican's ties with the Orthodox and Armenian Christian churches, which split with Rome centuries ago.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who from his seat in Istanbul acts of spiritual head of Orthodox Christianity's 250 million members worldwide, invited the pontiff to Turkey a year ago, long before the pope's speech that incited Muslims.
After nearly a millennium of conflict between Rome and the Orthodox church, the pope and the patriarch called Thursday for a combined effort to salvage the declining membership and stature of both churches in Europe, where Christians are increasingly abandoning religion as Islam gains followers and influence.
"In Europe, while remaining open to other religions and to their cultural contributions, we must unite our efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values," the leaders said in a joint statement after an elaborate, two-hour St. Andrew's Day service in the Orthodox Church of St. George near the banks of the Bosporus Strait.And while the pope was willing to pray in the Blue Mosque, he avoided any overt show of prayer when he visited the Haghia Sophia -- once considered Christendom's grandest house of worship.
In 1453, Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, now Istanbul, and turned the church into a mosque. It was declared a museum in 1935 after Turkey became a secular republic.
Press and television commentators here had speculated about whether the pope would attempt a prayer in Haghia Sophia or make a comment urging the government to return it to its status as a place of worship.
He did neither. He did, however, raise folded hands for a few seconds toward the recently refurbished ceiling mosaic of the Virgin Mary, and as he entered the soaring spaces of the onetime cathedral, his face seemed more animated than in any other public appearance of his trip.
Special correspondent Yonca Poyraz-Dogan contributed to this report.