Rome (AsiaNews) The silent prayer in Istanbul's Blue Mosque is very likely to come to symbolise Benedict XVI's trip to Turkey, his first to a predominantly Muslim country, a trip according to those who accompanied him that pleased him.
Card Roger Etchegaray, who was with the Pope in Istanbul, compared this unexpected and astounding gesture to Jean Paul II's "prayer" note which he put in the cracks between the stones of the Wailing Wall when he visited Jerusalem in 2000. "They are two very important symbolic moments," Cardinal Etchegaray said. "and both were unexpected." "Benedict XVI," he added, "did with the Muslims, what John Paul II did with the Jews."
For many, the gesture was also a way to "erase Regensburg", a point of view not shared by Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office. "It is my impression that Regensburg bore fruit insofar it encouraged a more serious and deeper dialogue between Christianity and Islam as people on both sides sought important clarifications. With these steps and with the visit to the mosque I think we have made important progress."
Although what impact the visit will have remains to be seen, it is bound to remain engraved in history. Turkish papers wrote about it in favourable terms, some even going so far as saying that the Pope acted "as a true Muslim faithful". Somewhat different reaction came from Iran where responses were negative.
Interfaith relations with Islam were certainly one of the goals of the trip. However, coming to Turkey had other purposes as well: progress along the ecumenical path with the Orthodox, providing moral support to Catholicsbadly hurt by the killing of Fr Andrea Santoro and oppressive episodes experienced both before and after it, and improve relations with Turkey.
In the Turkey itself the latter was especially important because in the period leading up to Benedict XVI's trip, the national press had focused on his opposition to Turkey's entry into the European Union when he was still a cardinal.
Twice in 2004 the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith highlighted the cultural gap between Turkey, a secular state founded on islam, and Europe whose foundation is Christian culture. Because of such diversity, deeply rooted in history, the then cardinal believed, Turkey has always been viewed as the "Other" with the respect to the Old Continent.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's decision to meet the Pope on his arrival at Ankara Airport and on his departure at Istanbul Airport can also be seen in light of Turkey's difficult negotiations with the European Union. Erdogan's statement that Benedict XVI backed Turkey's bid for EU membership can be ascribed to the same reason, a claim which the Vatican eventually explained as simply support from the Holy See to the dialogue between the two sides. Still the PM's statement had its effect on the Turkish press which reported it with great emphasis in their front pages. And this type of coverage might change attitudes people previously held.
If upon taking his leave from the country, the Pope said that he "left his heart here [in Turkey], his steps along the ecumenical path with the Orthodox generated less attention. None the less, the various Orthodox and Catholic services, his meetings, tête-à-têtes, and meals with Bartholomew I, head of the Patriarchate that is first "in honour", as well as their joint declaration signed on the Feast Day of Saint Andrew, patron saint of Eastern Churches, are all signs of a real progress, at least in "emotional" terms. And the joint declaration itself, whilst it did confirm the desire go forward, it did not go much further than what had been already achieved.
In the statement, both Churches condemned religious justifications for terrorism and renewed the demand that religious freedom and minority rights be fully respected, important issues whose relevance transcend Turkey's boundaries to include (almost) the whole Muslim world and affect Turkey's requirement to meet European standards if it wishes to see its entry application into the EU go ahead.
Last night, Patriarchate officials said they were "very happy" with how the Pope's visit developed and let it be known that further steps might be taken.
For the Orthodox as for the Catholics, both tiny minorities in Turkey, hope lies with the Turkish government's pledges made during the Pope's visit to take the necessary steps to guarantee greater religious freedom.
In more immediate terms, expectations are that the local public opinion might turn around. It is no accident that the bishops from Turkey and other Muslim countries asked the Pope to show a sign of "respect" towards Islam that might make their existence less difficult.