ISTANBUL (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama met religious leaders in Istanbul on Tuesday as part of an effort to unite moderates of major faiths against extremism.
Obama told the Muslim world in a speech on Monday the United States was not at war with Islam, using his first international tour to try to repair the United States’ damaged image abroad.
Pursuing his message, Obama talked with Istanbul’s senior Islamic official, the city’s chief rabbi and representatives of Orthodox Christian churches.
In a further sign of engagement, Obama toured Turkey’s most important mosque, the Blue Mosque, accompanied by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Mufti Mustafa Cagrici.
Obama is on the last leg of his debut trip on the world stage as president. He is trying to rebuild ties with Muslims after anger at the invasion of Iraq and war in Afghanistan, made more urgent by a strengthening al Qaeda and Taliban insurgency.
“Let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he said in a speech to the Turkish parliament in the capital Ankara on Monday.
The speech was both directed to NATO ally Turkey, a secular but predominantly Muslim democracy, and to the wider region.
As part of a new drive to engage with youths around the world, as Obama did in Strasbourg, he held a town hall meeting at a cultural centre in Istanbul.
“Meeting with the youth symbolises the expectation of hope and change, because the previous administration had a problem with its image in the Muslim world,” said Salih Altundere, 23, studying international relations at Bogazici University.
“Turkey has a special position in the Muslim world. This government is religious but still democratic,” he said as Obama made his way to the youth town hall event.
His two-day visit is a nod to Turkey’s regional reach, economic power, diplomatic contacts and status as a secular democracy seeking European Union membership that has accommodated political Islam.
The visit to Turkey was also driven by a recognition that Ankara could help the United States work towards resolving confrontations and conflicts ranging from Iran to Afghanistan.
“His (Obama’s) messages on Turkey joining the EU and on Islam were very important. We really needed to hear a new message on Islam from the U.S.,” said Ahmed Ozun, a 23-year-old barber in Istanbul’s historic centre.
Turkey is a key ally for the United States as it has close ties with Israel, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and also acts as a transit route for U.S. troops and equipment bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is seeking rapprochement with foes like Iran and Syria.
His message in Turkey drew a mixed reaction elsewhere in the Muslim world.
“That’s a very positive statement and I want to be on record to appreciate that,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said at a news conference in Islamabad with U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.
But Munawar Hassan, head of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, said the United States was on a crusade against Islam.
“They have destroyed Iraq. They have destroyed Afghanistan. Their actions are totally opposite to what they are saying. Such good statements do not make any difference,” he told Reuters.
In Istanbul, Obama visited Hagia Sofia, a former basilica, then a mosque and now a museum that is considered the embodiment of Byzantine architecture.
He also toured the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque because of the thousands of hand-painted Iznik tiles that adorn its interior.
“Spectacular,” Obama described it.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Writing by Paul de Bendern; Editing by Angus MacSwan