Benedict XVI: Flips from building bridges with Islam to bridging gap between Catholicism & Orthodoxy Print E-mail
Friday December 01, 2006

Benedict Meets Orthodox Leader

By Philip Pullella Reuters

ISTANBUL -- Pope Benedict and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians held a solemn prayer service together Thursday and recommitted their Churches to the quest for unity to patch up a nearly 1,000-year-old schism.

"The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel," Benedict said in his homily at the colorful service in the incense-filled Church of St. George.

Benedict's service with Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, was held on the feast of St. Andrew the apostle, who is said to have preached in what is now Istanbul after Christ's death.

Benedict's visit has been marked by the tightest security ever seen for a foreign visitor. A few dozen supporters of a nationalist Islamist party protested against the pope outside Istanbul University under heavy police guard.

During the Byzantine rite service, dotted by gestures of bowing, crossing oneself, crucifix waving and chalice kissing, the white bearded Bartholomew called it another step on "the unwavering journey toward the restoration of full communion among our Churches."

Orthodox churches are joined in a loose union, rather than Catholicism's rigid hierarchy, with the pope as head of his Church of some 1.1 billion members.

The western and eastern branches of Christianity split in the Great Schism of 1054 over differences on theology and papal authority. Dialogue aimed at reunion began in earnest in 1965, when both sides lifted the mutual excommunications imposed in 1054.

As Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Istanbul's name until 1930, Bartholomew has a prestigious title but directly presides over only about 3,000 Greek Orthodox left in Istanbul.

The warm rapport between Benedict and Bartholomew could help pave the way for a historic meeting between the Pope and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, which would be a major advance in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

The Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have been at odds over Orthodox charges that Catholics have been trying to win converts after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Vatican denies this.

After backing Turkey's bid to join the European Union and praising Islam as a peaceful religion, Benedict will continue his fence-mending with the Muslims by going to visit Istanbul's Blue Mosque.

Before stopping at the Blue Mosque, Benedict will visit the nearby Aya Sofya, once Christianity's largest church.

On conquering the city in 1453, Sultan Mehmet went to the church and prayed, turning it into a mosque. As part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's drive to modernize Turkey, it was secularized and turned into a museum in 1934.

Nationalist and Islamist Turks will be watching to see if Benedict commits the unlikely faux pas of praying in the museum. Pope Paul VI did so in 1967, causing a diplomatic incident, but Pope John Paul II did not when he was there in 1979.