Pope Benedict XVI expressed his admiration for Muslims and Islam on Wednesday, and called for freedom of religion and faith that rejects all forms of violence.

The pontiff, who returned Friday from the four-day visit to Turkey that included a stop at Istanbul's Blue Mosque, discussed his trip during his weekly audience at the Vatican.

As a secular state with a predominantly Muslim population, Turkey is an emblem of the challenge for much of the world, Benedict said.

"On one side, it is necessary to rediscover the reality of God and public importance of religious faith, on the other to assure that the expression of faith is free, devoid of fundamentalist degeneration, capable of firmly repudiating any form of violence," the pontiff said.

"I therefore was given the propitious occasion to renew my sentiments of esteem for Muslims and the Islamic civilization," Benedict added. "At the same time I was able to insist on the importance that Christians and Muslims work together for mankind, for life, for peace and for justice."

Benedict's trip was originally envisioned as 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 gave a speech in September that angered many Muslims, it became a test of the Vatican's ability to mend ties with the Islamic world.

Muslims throughout the world reacted angrily — and in some cases violently — to the speech in which Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith."

Benedict's visit to a mosque was only the second in papal history. His predecessor Pope John Paul II made a groundbreaking visit to the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001.

On Wednesday, the pope described his visit to the mosque as "a gesture that was not initially planned but that turned out to have great significance."

"During a few minutes of reflection in that place of worship I turned to the only God of heaven and earth," Benedict said. "May all believers see themselves as his creatures and bear witness of true brotherhood."

During his trip, the pope also made some sensitive demands: wider protection and rights for Christian minorities in the Muslim world, including Turkey's tiny communities whose roots go back to the apostles.

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