Pope Benedict XVI met with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday to pursue a key goal of his papacy: healing a rift between the two feuding branches of Christianity that dates back nearly a millennium.
Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I, who represents about 150-million Orthodox faithful, prayed together at the patriarchal church of St George before holding private talks.
”We must realise the progress made as well as the mistakes made along the way” towards reconciliation, said Bartholomew, who had met the spiritual leader of the world’s 1,1-billion Roman Catholics at the Istanbul airport earlier in the day.
The pope, for his part, said the encounter had been ”full of authentic good will and great meaning”.
The pontiff’s goal of achieving closer ties with the Orthodox Church, however, has been upstaged during his four-day trip to Turkey by the need to address simmering anger in the Muslim world over his remarks in September seen as linking Islam and violence.
Tight security was in place in Istanbul for what is considered the most volatile part of Benedict’s visit, and the route of his motorcade following his arrival in the city of more than 12-million — where about 15 000 people demonstrated on Sunday against the visit — was kept secret.
Two more demonstrations were expected on Thursday, when the pope’s programme would take him to two sensitive sites: the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque, the two most prominent Christian and Muslim edifices of Istanbul, within a stone’s throw of each other.
Benedict will be the second pope to visit a mosque after his predecessor, John Paul II, did so in Damascus, in 2001.
Also on Wednesday, the Vatican shrugged off an assertion by a self-styled Islamic emirate in Iraq led by al-Qaeda that the pontiff’s visit to Turkey is part of a ”crusade against Islam”.
”Neither the pope nor his entourage have any concern over this type of message, which underscores once again the urgency and importance of a shared commitment by all forces opposed to the use of violence,” said Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi.
Earlier on Wednesday, the pontiff was in the historic city of Ephesus where he visited the House of the Virgin Mary and celebrated his first Mass on Muslim soil at the location where the mother of Christ is believed to have spent her last years.
”From this edge of the Anatolian peninsula, a natural bridge between continents, let us implore peace and reconciliation, above all for those dwelling in the land called ‘holy’ and considered as such by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike,” the pope said in his homily.
The pope’s potentially explosive trip got off to an unexpectedly smooth start in Ankara on Tuesday, when both sides traded gestures and words of good will to defuse tensions caused by his remarks in September equating Islam and violence.
Jitters over the pope’s visit, his first as pontiff to a Muslim country, led to a security blanket even tighter than that laid out for United States President George Bush when he visited during a 2004 Nato summit.
The schism between the Eastern and Western Rites was sealed in 1054 after long-running disputes over papal primacy and theological differences.
In 1204, the Fourth Crusade carried out the brutal sack of Constantinople — modern-day Istanbul — further deepening hostilities.
Benedict is following the lead of his late friend and mentor John Paul II, who visited Istanbul in 1979, just one year after he was elected pope, to announce the creation of a joint Orthodox-Catholic committee to resolve differences.
At a meeting at the Vatican in July 2004, John Paul II and Bartholomew I issued a joint declaration for the resumption of Orthodox-Catholic theological talks, suspended in 2000 after a row over the status of Eastern Catholic churches.
Benedict and Bartholomew I were to meet again early on Thursday when they were to issue a joint declaration. — Sapa-AFP