ISTANBUL: 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, Pope Francis toured key religious and historical sites in the city once known as Constantinople that 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 centrepiece of his morning tour was a closely scrutinised 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 Pope 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 dua.
Like Pope Francis, Pope Benedict had turned towards Makkah in what many saw as a stunning gesture of reconciliation between Islam and Christianity.
A Vatican official described Pope 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. Pope 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 museum for all in modern day Turkey.
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.
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 Pope 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 centre of Istanbul. Papal visits to Turkey are still a rarity — Pope Francis is the just the fourth pope to visit the country after Pope Benedict in 2006, Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Paul VI in 1967.
Published in Dawn, November 30th , 2014