ISTANBUL (AFP) — Pope Francis on Saturday stood alongside a top Islamic cleric in a moment of highly-symbolic contemplation at an Ottoman mosque, as he visited Istanbul on his first trip to the former capital of the Christian Byzantine world.
On the second day of his visit to overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular Turkey, Francis toured key religious and historical sites in the city once known as Constantinople which was conquered by the Ottoman army in 1453.
The visit of the pope is seen as a crucial test of Francis’s ability to build bridges between faiths amid the rampage by Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Iraq and Syria and concerns over the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
The centerpiece of his morning tour was a closely scrutinized visit to the great Sultan Ahmet mosque— known abroad as the Blue Mosque and one of the great masterpieces of Ottoman architecture.
The pope paused for two minutes and clasped his hands in reflection, a gesture remarkably similar to that of his predecessor Benedict XVI who visited the mosque on the last papal visit to Turkey in 2006.
The pope closed his eyes, clasped his hands in front of his chest beneath the cross he wears around his neck and bowed his head, as he stood next to Istanbul Mufti Rahmi Yaran who performed an Islamic prayer known as the dua.
Like Francis, Benedict had turned towards Mecca in what many saw as a stunning gesture of reconciliation between Islam and Christianity.
A Vatican official described Francis’ gesture as a “silent adoration”, using a term for religious reverence, making clear he did not perform a prayer.
“It was a beautiful moment of inter-religious dialogue. The same thing happened eight years ago with Benedict,” added Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
After talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Friday, the pope had called for dialogue between faiths to end the Islamist extremism plaguing the Middle East.
High security, thin crowds
Francis also toured the Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church that was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople but then became a secular museum for all in modern day Turkey.
The leader of the world’s Roman Catholics then celebrated holy mass at the baroque mid-nineteenth century Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul.
Amid heavy security, the close contact with crowds that have been such a feature of past trips by the charismatic Francis appeared to be absent from the programme here.
Amid the usual hordes of media, just a light sprinkling of believers and well-wishers waved at the pope from behind police barriers as his motorcade drove through the historic center of Istanbul.
“I am not Christian but I came here out of curiosity and respect. At a time of so many conflicts around us we all need messages of peace and tolerance,” said Selime, 70, a Muslim Turk.
Three police snipers stood on each of the two front minarets of the Hagia Sophia for the pope’s tour.
True to his pledges to be a pope who eschews extravagance, the pope was driven in a small car, a Renault Symbol, rather than the bulletproof vehicle offered by the presidential palace.
Narrowing the schism
The pope will in the evening hold an ecumenical prayer in the Orthodox Church of St. George and a private meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the “first among equals” of the world’s estimated 300 million Orthodox believers.
Francis and Bartholomew— who enjoy warm relations— will seek to narrow the differences between the two Churches that date back to the Great Schism of 1054.
“I believe the pope came here to bridge the divide between Catholics and Orthodox,” said Maria Kiliclioglu, a member of Turkey’s tiny Bulgarian Orthodox minority. “We need him among us.”
Turkey’s own Christian community is tiny — just 80,000 in a country of some 75 million Muslims — but also extremely mixed, consisting of Armenians, Orthodox, Franco-Levantines, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans.
Of these only the small Franco-Levantine and Chaldean communities regard the pope as the head of their churches.
Papal visits to Turkey are still a rarity— Francis is the just the fourth pope to visit the country after Benedict in 2006, John Paul II in 1979 and Paul VI in 1967.
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