US President Barack Obama visited a landmark mosque in Istanbul on Tuesday, following strong messages of US reconciliation with the Islamic world on his maiden trip to a mainly Muslim country.Taking off his shoes as tradition requires, Obama stepped into the 16th-century Sultanahmet Mosque in the ancient heart of Istanbul, accompanied by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid tight security in the area.
Two Muslim preachers guided Obama inside the grandiose edifice better known as the Blue Mosque for its blue tileworks -- and the president smiled when they showed him a dome scripture mentioning the Prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussein, Obama's middle name, Anatolia news agency reported.In a major speech at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on Monday, Obama declared that the United States "is not and never will be at war with Islam" and called Turkey a "critical ally," earning himself much praise in a country where his precedessor left the US image in tatters."Obama conquers hearts," the popular Vatan newspaper trumpeted on its front page, while the liberal Taraf said the speech marked the end of "the bellicose spirit of September 11."
He combined his visit to the Blue Mosque with a tour of the 6th-century Hagia Sophia church, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture across the Islamic edifice.The church was converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453, and was finally transformed into a museum in the 1930s, still featuring both biblical paintings and Islamic scriptures.
Obama also met with university students before wrapping up his two-day visit to Turkey and his debut trip to Europe later on Tuesday.
A Turkish security official said on Tuesday a man was detained in Istanbul last week on suspicion he plotted to kill Obama.But police then established the man was mentally disturbed and released him.Since his election, Obama has already won significant popularity in Turkey, a NATO member and a key Muslim ally of the United States, and is keen to improve ties that chilled over the US invasion of neighbouring Iraq in 2003 and former president George W. Bush's policies in the Middle East.
A public opinion poll found in February that 39.2 percent of Turks had confidence in Obama, making him "the most trusted leader" in Turkish eyes.In 2005, only 9.3 percent said they trusted Bush, giving him only a slight lead over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had the confidence of 4.6 percent.On Monday, Obama hardened his message in support of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, despite French and German opposition.
Turkey and the United States, he said, could set an example to the world by building a "model partnership" based on democratic values, including respect for religious diversity.In more pointed messages, Obama called on Turkey to step up EU-demanded democracy reforms and broaden the freedoms of non-Muslim minorities and the restive Kurdish community.He urged normalisation of ties with Armenia, while signalling that Washington would not interfere in their dispute on whether the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century was genocide.
Obama's decision to include Turkey in his first trip to Europe is largely seen as an effort to keep the country firmly anchored in the West.Turkey's Islamist-rooted government has recently given rise to fears that it is drifting away fom the West, forging closer ties with countries such as Iran and Sudan and welcoming leaders of the radical Palestinian movement Hamas in Ankara.