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Pope's historic visit to Turkey ends with ambiguity

ISTANBUL, Turkey—As Pope Benedict XVI on Friday left the streets of Istanbul, a city that had been locked down since his arrival, some Turks said they had been won over by his four-day visit to this secular nation of Muslims.

Others, though, said they remained dubious about a man who had been roundly criticized for comments earlier this fall about Islam.

Many Muslims were furious when the pope in September quoted a former resident of this city, Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, saying, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Everyone agreed that there was no lack of effort, or symbolism, in his visit. He became only the second pope (after John Paul II) to enter a mosque, and he bowed his head as the imam at the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Mosque, offered a prayer. He also refrained from visibly praying in Hagia Sophia, something that was seen as showing respect for the secular Turkish state. Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine church, became a mosque after 1453 and is now a museum.

The mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, who'd been highly critical of Benedict XVI after the speech in September and who had signed a protest letter by Islamic academics, said that he was impressed by the visit.

"The joint prayer, in the mosque, was more important than his previous words," he said.

In fact, the Sabah newpaper covered its front page with a photo of the two of them together, and said, "Forgiven in Sultan Ahmet."

Arguably, the only uncomfortable moment came when Turkish President for Religious Affairs Ali Bardakoglu—who in September had accused the pontiff of "having hatred in his heart" for Muslims—told the pope that leaders have a responsibility to stem the tide of Islamophobia in the west, not feed it.

Nazlan Ertan, executive editor of The New Anatolian newspaper, said the pope didn't place a step wrong during his visit. "The pope amazed all of Turkey with his sympathetic acts," he said. "He even spoke a few words in Turkish. I don't know how it could have gone better."

There were, however, complaints.

On the streets of Istanbul, Mehmet Tekindag, 46, a Turkish nationalist, said he was angry about the trip, which he said was no more than an excuse to visit Patriarch Bartholomew of the eastern Orthodox church.

A young woman, Zeynep Koru, noted that security was so tight for the visit that getting around was very difficult. Traffic snarls lasted for hours.

"He is calling for peace, ethics," she said. "Then he should respect to people and visit the places by helicopter."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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