11/30/2006, 00.00
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In Istanbul's Blue Mosque the Pope prays for the brotherhood of humankind

by Franco Pisano
In a relaxed atmosphere following weeks of tensions and fears that accompanied the Pope's arrival, Benedict XVI also visits Saint Sophia and the Armenian cathedral. Now it is time to wait for reactions in the Muslim world. From our special correspondent.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Two minutes of silence, a prayer made obvious only by the moving lips of Benedict XVI and the imam of the Blue Mosque. Different prayers, of course, elicited by the Pope who said—"Let us pray for brotherhood and the good of humanity!—in response to the imam, who during the visit to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, showed the Pontiff the Muslim prayer book, saying that "each Muslim prayer begins with the name of Allah; Allah is the name of God". Having placed his hand on the book, the Pope invited those presents to pray. At the moment he was in front of the mihrab, the niche in direction of Makkah.

Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Room, denied there was a prayer. "The Pope," he said, "stood before the Mihrab in meditation and he certainly turned his thoughts to God".

However one may want to characterise what Benedict XVI did, it has an illustrious precedent in John Paul I's prayer in the Damascus Mosque, although there it took place before the spot that is traditionally considered to be the burial place of John the Baptist.

The "meditation" occurred in the afternoon, which was set aside for visits to three places each in its way linked to religion: Saint Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Armenian Cathedral of Saint Mary.

In Turkey, each scheduled event is awaited expectantly for the fear of what Islamo-nationalists might do if the Pope tried to repeat what Pope Paul VI did and pray. Even the meeting with the Armenians raised concerns over the possibility that he might make a reference to the Armenian genocide, an event which the Turkish government denies.

The visit to the mosques was added to the original plan. It was meant as a way to soothe relations between Catholics and Muslims by showing respect towards the Islamic religion.

The Pope himself indirectly confirmed this inside the building. As he and the mufti exchanged gifts—a blue tile with the stylised image of a dove with an olive branch from the mufti and a mosaic with four doves from the Pope—, he said that "this visit will help us find together the means and ways of peace for the good of humanity".

"This is meant," the Pope said, "to be a message of brotherhood in remembrance of a visit I shall certainly never forget," adding at the end of the meeting, "thanks for this occasion of prayer". And now we will have to wait for reactions in the Islamic world.

Arriving from nearby Saint Sophia, where he had been welcome by Istanbul's grand mufti, Mustafa Cagrici, Benedict XVI removed his shoes, but not the cross on his chest, and entered the mosque accompanied by the grand mufti and the mosque's imam. Both showed him the beautiful elements of the building, officially named after Sultan Ahmet Camii, but better known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles in its interior. It is certainly the best known Muslim sacred building in Istanbul. Built in the early 1600s, it was once the gathering point for Turkish pilgrims on their way to Makkah.

Saint Sophia—Hagia Sophia—, the Holy Wisdom of God, is much older. Muslims say that it is the only church Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, wanted to turn into a mosque.

First built under the Emperor Constantine, after being ravaged by fires it was rebuilt under Justinian in 532 to make it "the most sumptuous basilica since creation" and in effect it was rich in marbles, precious materials, mosaics and much more. Until Saint Peter's Basilica was built in Rome, it had the biggest dome. Its many mosaics survived the iconoclasts and Muslim conquest but in the 18th century were covered with plaster.

In 1935 Atatürk turned the building into a museum which it still is, but as early as 1847 craftsmen have been working on salvaging the mosaics, a process that is still going on.

Turkish Islamo-nationalists groups would like to see the building revert to its old status as a mosque. And some Muslim charitable organisations have already set up shop around it.

Protected by an imposing security detail, Benedict XVI arrived at the mosque 5 pm.  Accompanied by the museum's director, he looked closely to the mosaic on top of the entrance; it depicts Constantine and Justinian giving the two churches (the old and the new) to Mary and Jesus. Inside the building the Pontiff also admired another mosaic, one that showed the face of Virgin Mary, an image that he eventually found again in the amphora that was given to him as a gift.

As he left Saint Sophia, the Pope stopped to meet a group of disabled Muslims.

Benedict XVI' last visit of the day, shrouded in suspicions, was to the Armenian Cathedral of Saint Mary where he was to celebrate the Word. Welcomed by Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafian

Was, upon entering he was offered bread, salt, rose water and a thurible as tokens of welcome.

In his greeting, Benedict XVI made a reference to the Armenian genocide. "I give thanks to God," he said in fact, "for the faith and Christian witness of the Armenian people, passed on from one generation to the next, often in truly tragic circumstances like those endured in the last century".

Earlier, in Saint Sophia's guest book, Benedict XVI wrote: "In our diversity, we find ourselves before the faith in the One God. May God enlighten us and make us find the path of love and peace."

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