Obama reaches out to Muslim world in Istanbul

8th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

On the final day of his maiden trip to a Muslim country, Obama visited a landmark mosque in Istanbul as well as met religious leaders and university students to push his appeal for dialogue.

Istanbul -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday pledged a "new chapter of American engagement" as he wound up a visit to mainly Muslim Turkey with messages of US reconciliation with the Islamic world.

On the final day of his maiden trip to a Muslim country, Obama visited a landmark mosque in Istanbul as well as met religious leaders and university students to push his appeal for dialogue.

"Simple exchanges can break down walls between us," he told the students in a session that saw him answer questions on US policy.

"I am committed to a new chapter of American engagement... We can't afford to talk past one another, to focus only on our differences or to let the walls of mistrust go around us."

He also called for a "balanced" approach towards Israel, saying the Jewish state was not behind all problems in the Middle East.

"In the Muslim world, the notion that somehow everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance because there are two sides to every question," Obama said.

The president sent a similar message to Israel, saying "you have to see the perspective of the Palestinians."

He voiced renewed hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved on the basis of a two-state solution.

Visiting the 17th-century Sultanahmet Mosque in the ancient heart of Istanbul, Obama took off his shoes as tradition requires and was accompanied by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid tight security.

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.

He combined his visit to the Blue Mosque with a tour of the sixth-century Hagia Sophia church, converted to a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453. It was finally transformed into a museum in the 1930s, still featuring both biblical paintings and Islamic scriptures.

Obama also met Muslim, Christian and Jewish spiritual leaders based in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city and the meeting point of Europe and Asia.

He left Turkey on Tuesday afternoon to return home following a trip that had also taken him to G20, NATO and EU-US summits -- his first journey overseas as president.

Obama sought to portray a sharp shift in US engagement with the Islamic world in comparison to his predecessor George W. Bush's approach during his trip to Turkey.

In a major speech at the Turkish parliament in Ankara Monday, he declared that the United States "is not and never will be at war with Islam" and called Turkey a "critical ally."

The comments earned him praise in a country where Bush left the US image in tatters.

A Turkish security official meanwhile said a man was detained in Istanbul last week on suspicion he plotted to kill Obama. Police later established the man was mentally disturbed and released him.

Ties between the United States and Turkey, a NATO member and key Muslim ally of the US, chilled over the invasion of neighbouring Iraq in 2003 and 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 from the West, forging closer ties with countries such as Iran and Sudan and welcoming leaders of the radical Palestinian movement Hamas in Ankara.


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