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.
He met Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II, Istanbul Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva, the senior Islamic official in Istanbul, Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Cetin. He later went on a tour of Istanbul's historical sites the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
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 resurgent al Qaeda and Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
"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.
Trying to show he was serious about improving ties with Muslims, Obama hammered home his support for the creation of a Palestinian state, despite the recent election of a right-leaning government in Israel.
"Let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam," he said.
"Our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject," Obama said.
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.
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.
As the United States reduces its troops in Iraq, Incirlik air force base is expected to play an important role.
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.
Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is seeking rapprochement with foes like Iran and Syria.
The streets in Istanbul's historic centre were lined with onlookers, smiling as the presidential motorcade passed by.
Obama visited Hagia Sofia, a former basilica, then a mosque and now a museum that is considered the embodiment of Byzantine architecture. Obama will then tour the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque because of the thousands of hand-painted Iznik tiles that adorn its interior.
Obama's last stop will be a town hall meeting with students later on Tuesday.