ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI, in a parting message of goodwill to Muslims at the end of his first papal trip to a predominantly Muslim nation, said Friday that the Vatican wishes to “impose nothing on anyone.”

The pope – celebrating Mass for members of Turkey’s tiny Roman Catholic community a day after a stunning moment of prayer at a mosque – also repeated his call to end divisions among the world’s Christians.

“You know well that the church wishes to impose nothing on anyone, and that she merely asks to live in freedom,” the pope said at Istanbul’s Holy Spirit Cathedral, where he was joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

The pope has worked hard during the four-day trip to convince the Muslim world that he is interested in cooperation rather than confrontation, nearly three months after touching off worldwide fury for his remarks on violence and the Prophet Muhammad.

But Benedict also has made it clear he expects Islamic nations to improve rights and protections for Christian minorities, including the estimated 90,000 Christians in Turkey whose religious roots go back to biblical times.

“Your communities walk the humble path of daily companionship with those who do not share our faith,” the pope told the congregation filling the 160-year-old cathedral that contains the relics of a 1st century Christian martyr.

In the courtyard, the pope released several white doves near a statue of the World War I-era pontiff that inspired his papal name, Benedict XV, which was erected by Turkey in honor of that pope’s work “as a benefactor of all people, regardless of nation or creed.”

The pope noted that his predecessor, John Paul II, spoke at the same site in 1979 and appealed for unity among Christians, and in particular for ending the nearly 1,000-year rift between the Vatican and the world’s Orthodox.

Strengthening Christian bonds should be “at the forefront,” Benedict told the congregation.

A day earlier, the pope joined Bartholomew at a feast day ceremony in the ancient Orthodox enclave in Istanbul, which was known as the Christian capital Constantinople before the city fell to Muslim forces in 1453. The pope called splits among Christians “a scandal to the world.”

Originally, the trip was envisioned as primarily a pilgrimage to reinforce Christian bonds and reach out to Turkey’s remaining Christians, including Catholics estimated to number between 20,000 and 30,000.

But after the pope’s comments in September, it became a supreme test of the Vatican’s ability to mend ties with Muslims.

The pope’s dramatic moment of silent prayer in Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque on Thursday capped a wide-ranging effort to win back Muslim sentiments, which included expressing support for Turkey’s steps to become the first Muslim nation in the European Union.

“The congenial pope,” said an editorial in Turkey’s influential Hurriyet newspaper.

Alongside Istanbul’s chief mufti, Mustafa Cagrici, the pope faced Mecca and “stood in prayer just like Muslims.”

Cagrici told private NTV television that a moment of prayer was scheduled in advance by the Vatican and Turkish diplomats, but it was left to the mufti to decide when and where.

“I allocated 30, 40 seconds for it. I finished my prayer, but the pope must have been so overcome that he took much longer,” he said.

In his last moment in Turkey, the pope walked down a red carpet before boarding a special Turkish Airlines flight to Rome.

“I hope this visit contributes to peace and dialogue between faiths,” he told Istanbul Gov. Muammer Guler at Istanbul’s international airport.

The headline in Turkey’s liberal Milliyet called it “The Istanbul Peace.” Another newspaper, Vatan, declared: “History Written in Istanbul.”

Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, the former head of Turkey’s directorate for religious affairs, said the pope facing Mecca was a “great gesture” for the Muslim world.

It marked only the second papal visit in history to a Muslim place of worship. John Paul II made a brief stop in a mosque in Syria in 2001.

Ali Bardakoglu, the top Muslim cleric in Turkey, defended the tough tone he took with the pope in describing Muslim anger at his remarks on Islam. But Bardakoglu called the visit “a very positive step.”

“We have to take sides with what’s … right. We cannot accept what’s wrong just to be polite,” he said.


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