Pope Francis prays in Turkey mosque in gesture of Muslim outreach
Francis and Istanbul's Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran share a "moment of silent adoration" of God
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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.
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"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.
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.
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.
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'
"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.
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