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Pope's Turkish tour is a surprising success

With carefully chosen gestures and well-timed words, Pope Benedict XVI managed to charm the Turkish people and transformed his image from a cranky Islamaphobe to a politically savvy statesman in a matter of days. NBC News' Keith Miller reports from Istanbul, Turkey.
Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI holds the Turkish flag at the end of a mass at the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, Turkey, on Wednesday.Patrick Hertzog / AP
/ Source: NBC News

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The newspaper headlines here have been astonishing. "So Far So Good," read one banner headline; "Alliance of Faiths," read another. And splashed across the front page of most papers Thursday was a picture of a smiling Pope Benedict XVI waving a Turkish flag.

With gentle gestures and well-timed words, Benedict managed to charm the Turkish people and transformed his image from a crusty old anti-Turkish Islamaphobe to a politically savvy statesman in a matter of days. (He is set to return to Rome at midday Friday.)

Dire warnings
This is not how things were expected to turn out for Benedict's visit to Turkey. Rather, there were dire warnings of mass demonstrations and fears that there might even be an assassination attempt because tensions were still so raw among many Turkish people over past perceived transgressions by the pope.

In particular, before being elected as pope the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke out against Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. And in September of this year, Benedict inspired the ire of Muslims the world over when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said Islam was violent and irrational during a speech at Regensburg University in Germany.

The mood the day before the pope arrived was ugly. Twenty-five thousand protesters gathered in Istanbul to demanding that he never set foot in their country. Most of the people at the demonstration were members of a conservative Islamic organization.

The papal tour had even seemed to fail to gain much support from the government, with so many ministers saying they had to be out of the country on business that one wondered who was going to run things during the visit.

Sea change
It all turned out much sunnier. After a building-bridges-inspired reshuffling of schedules, there to greet Benedict when he arrived in Ankara on Tuesday was Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who had originally said that he would miss the pope’s visit because of a previous engagement at the NATO meeting in Latvia.

And upon meeting Erdogan, Benedict immediately scored a home run by announcing that the Vatican was not opposed to Turkey's entrance into the European Union and that he considered Islam a religion of peace.

With those words, Benedict instantly gained points on two hot-button issues and seemed to turn down the temperature a bit. At outdoor coffee shops the mood was relaxed, with most saying they were happy the pope was visiting, though others were still demanding an apology for the pope's remarks linking Islam to violence.

On the same day, Benedict sat as still as a member of the choir as he listened to a lecture by Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey’s president of religious affairs, who, in a direct allusion to the pope's remarks at a German university last September, said that references to Islam being spread by the sword encourage Islamophibia.

When the pope did speak he concentrated on what united Christian and Islam, not what divided it. Nothing he said amounted to an apology, but by both listening to the the implied criticism without contradicting it and by his unity-inspiring words, he seemed to calm a good deal of Turkish anger over his earlier speech.

“He was still Cardinal Ratzinger before he came to Turkey, but now he has become Pope Benedict,” said Cemal Usak, secretary general of the Istanbul-based Intercultural Dialogue Platform.

Blue Mosque
But the most dramatic gesture of respect and reconciliation came when Benedict bowed his head in prayer with Mustafa Cagrici, the head cleric of Istanbul, inside Turkey’s most famous mosque — the Blue Mosque — on Thursday.

With his visit, Benedict became only the second pope in the Roman Catholic Church’s 2,000-year history to step inside a Muslim place of worship. The other was Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who visited a mosque in Syria in 2001.

The event was carried live on Turkish television. And there was the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics deep in prayer inside the mosque. "This visit will help us find together the way of peace for the good of all humanity," said the pope during the visit. Another home run.

Not world peace yet, but….
To be clear, no sweeping reconciliations have been achieved on this papal tour. For instance, the pope did not achieve an end to the divisions between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. (A major goal of his papacy — and this trip to Turkey — is to gain unity between the two ancient branches of Christianity which split in the so-called Great Schism nearly 1,000 years ago. In the Schism, two major branches of Christianity — the Catholic Church, based in Rome, and the Orthodox Church, based in Constantinope [now Istanbul, Turkey] — emerged. [The protestant branch of the church came in the 16th century after the reforms inspired by German cleric Martin Luther.])

But Benedict did have a symbolic display of unity with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians. The pope called for greater freedom for religious minorities and lamented the long-standing rift between Christians, saying, “the divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world."

The hurdles to achieve inter-faith trust are formidable, but as this trip winds up, both the pope and the Turkish people can be considered winners.

The losers were easy to spot: al-Qaida in Iraq and the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, both of which protested the Pope's visit — al-Qaida calling it a "crusader campaign" against Islam — and expressed hope that the Turkish people would extensively protest the pope's visit.

Let's go to the scoreboard: Turkey has a population of 70 million people, 99 percent of whom are Muslim, yet they hosted the leader of the Catholic faith with dignity, respect and, on occasion, charm.

It was not an easy visit for both sides, but the world got a valuable lesson in tolerance.