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Pope Visits Religious Sites in Turkey

November 30, 2006 at 10:25 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: It was understood from the very beginning that Pope Benedict’s visit to two of the best-known religious sites in the world were going to be very closely watched. How did that phase of the pope’s visit go tonight?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it was tonight, Ray, and these two monuments to two of the world’s great religions are right across a cobblestone sort of courtyard from one another.

And the first on the left that he went to first was a cathedral for 1,000 years, the Hagia Sophia church, until the Ottoman conquest. Then it was a mosque for 500 years, and then forcibly converted into a museum by Ataturk in 1934.

So the great anticipation had been: Would the pope do anything that would amount to any kind of religious expression inside the church? When Pope Paul VI came here in 1967, he dropped to his knees and began to pray, to the great consternation of his Turkish hosts and to massive protests in Turkey.

The pope did none of that. He walked into this vast, vast space, where we went the other day. It clearly feels like a church. You go to the very end of it, and there’s an apse there. And right at way, way up high, there’s a beautiful mosaic of the Madonna and child. And he looked up at it, and he went — just as if, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” And that was it.

Then, right below it is what’s called the mihrab, which is a niche that’s in every mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca. So you have the two religions right there.

The pope did nothing that amounted to prayer or even genuflecting, nothing that the Turkish press had been hyperventilating about for literally weeks.

Then he was whisked away to the Blue Mosque. He did not walk; they did not expose him to any crowds in that way. In the Blue Mosque, this is what Turkish television has been playing over and over again, because there he did appear to pray.

The imam, the grand mufti, the highest Islamic religious leader in Istanbul, showed him around, and at one point — they came to a certain point and the mufti said, “Well, now I’m going to pray.” And he was silent. And the pope clasped his hands sort of at his waist, and bowed his head, and even seemed to be moving his lips.

And later, I watched it on Turkish television, and the announcer said they prayed to the same God. Now, that may not be true; that is probably not true, except in a very cosmic sense. But it shows what impact the pope’s gestures have had here apparently on Turkish public opinion.

Again, the Turkish announcer kept saying he showed such great respect for Islam. The imam, when he was speaking to the pope, said, you know, “This visit has been a very welcome and positive event, and we greatly appreciate the pope’s visit to us and his respect for Islam.”

Pope stresses similarities of faith

RAY SUAREZ: So it sounds, from what you're saying, Margaret, like that anticipation, that anxiety that occurred in Turkey in weeks before the trip has been somewhat dispelled, the pope has been able to, in effect, change the storyline?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, he really has, and it did start Tuesday. You and I spoke on Tuesday in Ankara, when the minute he got off the plane, first of all, he spoke to the prime minister and indicated he supported Turkey's bid to join the EU in some fashion, and that was a reversal of position. He had earlier said he thought Turkey was inappropriate because it was a Muslim country.

And then, secondly, at every stop, he has talked about the flowering of Islamic civilization, what a great civilization it is, how much devout Christians and devout Muslims have in common as men of faith, is what he usually says, and that, in a way, they stand together as a bulwark against secularism.

Yesterday, for instance, he went to Ephesus and Izmir, which are really considered very Christian areas. Ephesus is where the Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her final years. When he gave a sermon there, he began and ended it in Turkish.

That's the only place he really mingled with people. It was a small crowd of about 200, 250. He held a Turkish flag.

So, you know, to many of us it may -- or to Western eyes, it might seem, "Boy, he went overboard." But if I could tell one man-on-the-street story -- it's really man-in-a-hair-salon story -- as I walked back to the hotel after leaving the Blue Mosque tonight, and I walked by this man who works in a hair salon whom I happen to know, and I noticed that all he and his friends were watching TV.

So I went in, and he was looking at this Turkish television, and he said, "He is a nice man. He's a nice man." And he said, "I wouldn't say this three days ago, but he has respect."

And that's what the Turks wanted to hear from him: They wanted to hear that he had respect for them and he had respect for Islam. And I do think that he has managed to convey that.

Purpose of the trip

RAY SUAREZ: So now that Pope Benedict has managed that part of the Turkish trip, can he now turn to what for the Vatican was one of the core missions of the visit?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you're right. The core mission of the visit was to try to repair or at least take steps toward repairing this thousand-year-old schism between the Western church and the Eastern Orthodox church, and there has been a lot of language of support for one another.

He really has spent the last day here in Istanbul as a guest of the patriarch. And together, the pope did issue a declaration calling for greater freedom for religious minorities, which is a huge issue for the Greek orthodox here in Turkey.

By some accounts, there are only 2,000 or 3,000 left in all of Turkey, and they are prevented from -- their seminary was closed in 1971. It really is on the verge, in the eyes of many even Vatican watchers, of withering away here.

So he did afford the patriarch of the Eastern Church a certain kind of stature and status and associated himself with the patriarch's call for greater freedom.

I think it also fits in for the pope with his view that the Orthodox Church is, in fact, an ally with him against the forces of secularism in the world, which, in a way, is a parallel to the way he feels about the Muslim faith, if this problem about violence can be overcome, or what he perceives as a problem of some Islamic leaders condoning violence.

That is, to the pope, the Turks are always suspicious -- let me back up and say -- that, when Christians talk about unifying the Eastern and Western churches, what they mean is it's a plot to somehow reclaim Istanbul as Constantinople, that it's a plot against the Muslim world, that it's a plot to restore Constantinople as the great Christian center, along with Rome.

Whereas, to the pope, the real schism in the world is between people of faith and people of no faith, or between the forces of faith and the forces of secularism.

And I think what you saw here on this trip is an attempt, both with the Orthodox Church and with religious leaders here, to forge common bonds and begin a real dialogue about how they together can advance the cause of spiritual and religious figures and institutions in shaping all of the cultures to which they belong.

RAY SUAREZ: Our Margaret Warner reporting from Istanbul. Good to talk to you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Great talking to you, Ray.