By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a historic moment of inter-faith solidarity, Pope Benedict XVI visited Istanbul’s famed “Blue Mosque” this afternoon, and at one point paused for a moment of what seemed like silent prayer alongside the imam who hosted him.
When John Paul II visited the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in 2001, he was led to what Muslims regard as the tomb of John the Baptist, and his host stepped back, saying he would leave the pope “alone to pray.” John Paul paused for a few moments of silence, though the act was later described by spokespersons as “meditation.”
In a further gesture of solidarity today, Benedict donned a pair of white slippers upon entering the Blue Mosque, honoring the Islamic tradition of not wearing shoes inside a mosque.
The visit to the Blue Mosque was added to the pope's schedule at the last minute, and was widely seen as a further gesture of outreach to Muslims. Despite the uproar over his Sept. 12 comments at the University of Regensburg linking Islam and violence, Benedict was given a warm welcome.
Later, while receiving gifts from his host, Benedict XVI said, “We pray for fraternity and for all humanity.”
The “Blue Mosque,” known locally as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque for the 17th century Ottoman emperor under whom it was built, is considered one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. It’s famously known as the Blue Mosque for its blue tiles in its interior.
Benedict made the visit immediately after receiving a guided tour of Hagia Sophia, the 6th century basilica constructed under the Emperor Justinian. Hagia Sophia later became a mosque in the Ottoman period, and finally became a museum in 1934 under Kemal Atatürk.
In keeping with the delicate question of religion in Turkey’s officially secular society, as well as to avoid awakening antique Ottoman fears of Christian claims upon Hagia Sophia, Benedict refrained from any explicitly religious gestures while inside.
At the same time, about 150 nationalists demonstrated against the visit to Haghia Sophia, gathering at a square less than a mile away and urging the government to open the museum to Muslim worship.
“Haghia Sophia is Turkish and will remain Turkish,” one protest sign read. Riot police surrounded the demonstrators to prevent them from advancing toward the site.