"A beautiful beginning: The Pope calls Islam a religion of peace" was the main headline in Hurriyet, one of Turkey's daily newspapers, hours after Pope Benedict XVI began his highly successful apostolic visit to Turkey two weeks ago.
In the current state of world affairs and religious tensions, the pope's visit to Turkey was significant. The church has deep roots in Turkey, since Asia Minor was visited by the apostles and was home to church fathers, and every ecumenical council during Christianity's first millennium was held on what is now Turkish territory. Previous visits of Roman Pontiffs to Turkey took place in 1967 and 1979.
The papal trip was originally envisioned as a pilgrimage to reinforce Christian bonds and reach out to Turkey's remaining Christians. But Benedict's visit assumed a far greater importance and urgency as a result of his Regensburg address last September and the ensuing fury over some of his remarks that reverberated violently throughout the Muslim world. This Turkish visit took a brilliant combination of Vatican diplomacy, negotiations through Catholic bishops in Turkey and Benedict's own carefully nuanced gestures to create the climate to make his visit a success.
Three important goals were met during the visit:
1) Perhaps the most critical path Benedict had to walk was that of reconciliation with Islam, and at the same time engaging Muslims in honest dialogue on crucial issues, especially the questions of faith and violence. During the visit he called Islam a peaceful faith and expressed hope Christians and Muslims could work together "for life, peace and justice."
2) In Turkey, the German Pope entered into a dialogue with the Turkish population and his government hosts as he addressed the importance of religious freedom and human rights in a modern democracy. Through his meetings with Turkish authorities, Benedict held up Turkey as an example of how a country can "guarantee the expression of such a faith be free, without fundamentalist degeneration, and capable of firmly repudiating every form of violence." He also did an about-face and voiced support for Ankara's bid to join the European Union. Before being elected pope in 2005, he had opposed Turkey's entry.
3) Through his warm, fraternal meetings with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Benedict generated a renewed ecumenical dynamism and set the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox) on a renewed trajectory toward unity.
In signing the Joint Declaration on the Feast of St. Andrew, Benedict of Rome and Bartholomew of Constantinople, both reaffirmed their commitment to follow the path to full communion between Catholics and Orthodox. Both Christian leaders warned against "the increase of secularization, relativism, even nihilism, especially in the Western world."
I shall never forget Pope Benedict's dramatic moment of silent prayer in Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque on Nov. 30. In an exceptional gesture, he turned towards Mecca for a moment of meditation. Together with Mustafa Cagrici, the grand mufti in Istanbul, the two men, clad in long white robes, stood motionless, side by side, for nearly two minutes, their hands crossed on their stomachs in a classical Muslim prayer attitude known as "the posture of tranquillity." This profound moment of prayer capped a wide-ranging effort to win back Muslim sentiments.
With his silent prayer in the mosque and general warmth throughout the entire Turkish trip, Benedict XVI showed himself to be every bit as adept at politics as theology. He is not only a great teacher but a humble student of history. In Turkey, the world witnessed the transformation of Joseph Ratzinger the great Cardinal, theologian and teacher, to Benedict XVI, the pope and statesman - a great, credible world religious leader.