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Pope visits Haghia Sophia in Istanbul

58 minutes ago

ISTANBUL, Turkey -

Pope Benedict XVI toured the 1,500-year-old Haghia Sophia on Thursday as part of his pilgrimage of landmarks of Christianity's ancient roots in Turkey.


The domed complex was for centuries a majestic center of Christianity before Constantinople — now Istanbul — was conquered by Muslim armies in 1453.

The site was a mosque until 1935, when it was converted to a museum under the secular reformers who founded modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

A massive operation by Turkish security was in force around Istanbul's ancient center, including armed security officers on minarets added to Haghia Sophia following the Muslim capture of the city.


Pope Benedict called divisions among Christians a "scandal to the world" at a joint ceremony Thursday with the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian church, which split from Catholicism nearly 1,000 years ago.

Reaching out to the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians is a centerpiece of Benedict's papacy. He has set the difficult goal of full unity between the two ancient branches of Christianity, which divided over disputes including the extent of papal authority.

"The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world," the pope said after joining Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to mark the feast day of St. Andrew, who preached across Asia Minor and who is believed to have ordained the first bishop of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

The pope also said all Christians should "renew Europe's awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality."

In a joint communique, the pope and patriarch stressed the need to "preserve Christian roots" in European culture while remaining "open to other religions and their cultural contributions."

The pope avoided any direct mention of Islam after praying with Bartholomew at the gilded St. George Church in Istanbul. But he is expected to sharpen his calls for what the

Vatican labels "reciprocity" — that Muslim demands for greater respect in the West must be matched by increased tolerance and freedoms for Christians in Islamic nations.

Too much pressure by the pope, who arrived in Istanbul late Wednesday, could risk new friction with Muslims after broad gestures of goodwill that sought to ease simmering Muslim anger over remarks by the pope on violence and the Prophet Muhammad.

A statement claiming to be from al-Qaida in

Iraq denounced the pope's visit as part of a "crusader campaign" against Islam and an attempt to "extinguish the burning ember of Islam" in Turkey. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the declaration — posted on several Islamic militant Web sites — shows the need for faiths to fight "violence in the name of God."

He said "neither the pope nor his entourage are worried."

Still, Turkish authorities took massive security precautions for the Istanbul stop, with thousands of police on the street and roads cleared of all traffic for the papal motorcade.

Later Thursday, the pope plans to visit the 1,500-year-old Haghia Sophia, a domed complex that was once a spiritual center of Christianity and then converted to a mosque in the 15th century. The site became a museum following the sweeping secular reforms that formed modern Turkey in the 1920s.

About 150 nationalists demonstrated against the pope's planned visit to the Haghia Sophia, gathering at a square less than a mile from the site and urging the government to open the museum to Muslim worship. Nationalists view the planned visit as a sign of Christian claims to the site and a challenge to Turkish sovereignty.

"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.

Benedict also is expected to make a brief tour of the famous Blue Mosque in the second papal visit to a Muslim place of worship after

Pope John Paul II's historic stop in a mosque in
in 2001.

Of Turkey's 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 23,000 are Jewish.


Associated Press reporter Victor L. Simpson contributed to this report.


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