Pope Francis prays in Turkey mosque in gesture of Muslim outreach

Pope Francis prayed silently alongside a senior Islamic cleric in Istanbul's Blue Mosque on Saturday, in a gesture of inter-religious harmony in a country bordering the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Francis and Istanbul's Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran share a "moment of silent adoration" of God

Pope Francis, left, bows to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I during an ecumenical prayer at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul on Saturday. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

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Pope Francis stood Saturday for two minutes of silent prayer facing east in one of Turkey's most important mosques, a powerful vision of Christian-Muslim understanding at a time when neighbouring countries are experiencing violent Islamic assault on Christians and religious minorities.

His head bowed, eyes closed and hands clasped in front of him, Pope Francis prayed alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, in the 17th-century Sultan Ahmet mosque, shifting gears to religious concerns on the second day of his three-day visit to Turkey.

"May God accept it," Yaran told the Pope of their prayer.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi called it a moment of "silent adoration." Lombardi said Francis told the mufti twice that Christians and Muslims must "adore" God and not just praise and glorify him.

Pope Francis joins Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, praying in the Sultan Ahmet mosque in Istanbul on Saturday. ( L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press)
It was a remarkably different atmosphere from Francis's first day in Turkey, when the simple and frugal Pope was visibly uncomfortable with the pomp and protocol required of him for the state visit part of his trip. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's mega-palace, honour guard and horseback escort now behind him, Francis got down to the business of being Pope, showing respect to Muslim leaders, celebrating mass for Istanbul's tiny Catholic community and meeting with the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

Francis bowed before Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and asked him "to bless me and the church of Rome" at the end of an ecumenical service Saturday evening. The Orthodox leader obliged, kissing Francis's bowed head. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Francis split in 1054 over differences on the primacy of the papacy, giving particular resonance to Francis's display of deference.

Tense time

The Pope's visit comes at an exceedingly tense time for Turkey, with Islamic State militants grabbing territory next door in Syria and Iraq and sending some 1.6 million refugees fleeing across the border. Some refugees were expected to attend Francis's final event on Sunday before he returns to Rome.

Francis nodded, smiled and looked up in awe as Yaran gave him a tour of the Blue Mosque, famed for its elaborate blue tiles and cascading domes. Presenting the Pope with a blue, tulip-designed tile, Yaran said he prayed to God that his visit would "contribute to the world getting along well and living in peace."

"We are in need of prayers. The world really needs prayers," Yaran said.

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a mass inside the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Istanbul. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)
Francis was following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Turkey in 2006 amid heightened Christian-Muslim tensions over a now-infamous papal speech linking violence with the Prophet Mohammed. The Vatican added the stop at the Blue Mosque at the last minute to show Benedict's respect for Muslims, a gesture greatly appreciated by Turks.

The Vatican also acted to avoid offence to its Muslim hosts this time around by moving up Francis's visit to the mosque so it wouldn't coincide with noon prayers.

After he left, Francis walked a short distance to tour the nearby Haghia Sofia, which was the main Byzantine church in Constantinople — present-day Istanbul — before being turned into a mosque following the Muslim conquest of the city in 1453. The Haghia Sophia is now a museum, although some Islamic groups want it to be converted back into a mosque.

Pope Paul VI, who in 1967 became the first pope to visit Turkey, fell to his knees in prayer inside Haghia Sophia, triggering protests by Turks who claimed Paul had violated the secular nature of the domed complex. Francis avoided any religious actions inside.

Call to prayer

Halfway through his tour, the Muslim call to prayer echoed off Haghia Sophia's marble walls, an evocative moment that symbolized the crossroads of the Ottoman and Roman empires, East and West, which Istanbul represents.

Museum director Hayrullah Cengiz pointed to a niche with a Byzantine fresco of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus, saying it was his favourite corner because the area also features Arabic writings of the names of the Prophet Mohammed and Allah.

"They are all together," Cengiz said.

Later Saturday, Bartholomew and Francis presided over an ecumenical prayer service at the Orthodox patriarchate on the eve of the feast of St. Andrew, which both will celebrate Sunday.

Their embrace at the end of Saturday's service was reminiscent of their meeting in May in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, when Francis bowed down and kissed Bartholomew's hand.

Several hundred people, many of them tourists, watched from behind police barriers as the Pope then walked to the nearby Aya Sofya museum, once the Christian church Hagia Sophia.

'Long live Pope Francis'

A group of school children waving Turkish and Vatican flags chanted "Long live Pope Francis" in Italian as the Muslim call to prayer rang out across the Sultanahmet square, the heart of Istanbul's historic quarter.

"We must show respect for each others beliefs. God willing the Pope's visit will help in this respect," said Halil Ibrahim Cil, 24, a hospital worker from Istanbul.

"We want to practise our religion in peace. We want people to understand Islam. We don't want war."

ISIS insurgents have captured swaths of neighbouring Syria and Iraq, persecuting and killing Shia Muslims, Christians and others who do not share their ultra-radical brand of Sunni Islam.

The Blue Mosque, known officially as the Sultanahmet mosque, opened in 1616 and is the most famous in Turkey. Its popular name is a reference to the fine blue Iznik tiles in its main prayer room.

Rapturous welcome

Francis was later given a rapturous welcome by Istanbul's tiny Roman Catholic community when he celebrated a mass in the city's Holy Spirit Cathedral. Several thousand people from a Catholic population of around 53,000 packed the small building and others watched from an outdoor courtyard.

He later went to a joint service with Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The main purpose of his trip is to hold a joint ceremony on Sunday with Bartholomew to renew their commitment to reunite the eastern and western branches of Christianity.

Bartholomew's seat remains in Istanbul, a vestige of the Byzantine Empire, even as his flock in Turkey has dwindled to less than 3,000 among a population of 75 million Muslims.

With files from CBC News

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