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Pope Prays in Istanbul Mosque, Rallies Local Christians

29 Nov 2014 – By Francis X. Rocca

ISTANBUL (CNS) — A day after hearing Turkish leaders demand the West show more respect for Islam, Pope Francis prayed alongside a Muslim cleric inside Istanbul’s most famous mosque.

At the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s grand mufti Rahmi Yaran led Pope Francis to the mosque’s “mihrab,” a niche indicating the direction to the holy city Mecca. He explained that the name is related to that of Jesus’s mother, Mary, who is revered by Muslims.

Then, as the grand mufti continued speaking, the pope fell silent and remained so for several minutes, with head bowed, eyes closed and hands clasped in front of him. A Vatican statement later described this as a “moment of silent adoration.”

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, an early 17th-century structure, is known as the Blue Mosque for the predominant color of the 21,000 tiles decorating its interior.

The pope’s 29 November visit had been scheduled for later in the morning but was moved up, out of concern that it would interfere with noon prayers.

The event recalled the last papal visit to Turkey, in 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer in the same mosque went far to ease an international furor over his speech in Regensburg, Germany, which had quoted a medieval description of the teachings of Islam’s prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman.”

For Pope Francis, the prayer was only the latest dramatic sign of a desire for closer relations with Islam, including his washing the feet of two Muslims during a Holy Thursday liturgy in 2013, and his invitation to Muslim and Jewish leaders to pray for peace in the Vatican Gardens the following year.

After his arrival in Turkey 28 November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the issue of prejudice and intolerance against Muslims in other countries, saying that “Islamophobia is a serious and rapidly rising problem in the West” and lamenting that “attempts to identify Islam with terrorism hurt millions.”

Later, during a visit to the Presidency of Religious Affairs, its president, Mehmet Gormez, decried what he called the “dissemination of terror scenarios by the global media through anti-Muslim expressions, which is a form of racism and which has now turned into a crime of hatred.”

After visiting the Blue Mosque, Pope Francis walked to the nearby Hagia Sofia, a sixth-century basilica converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, then turned into a museum in the 20th century. The interior decoration today includes gigantic calligraphy of Quranic verses as well as medieval mosaics of Jesus and Mary. As the pope toured the museum, it was filled with the sound of the noon call to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque.

During both visits, as at events later in the day, the pope looked tired but attentive.

In the afternoon, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Istanbul’s 19th-century Catholic cathedral, which ordinarily holds fewer than 600 people, but was filled to overflowing for the Mass. It was the first event during his visit to Turkey — a country whose population is less than 0.2 percent Christian — that recalled the enthusiastic crowds who ordinarily greet him on his travels.

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Tags: Pope Francis Turkey Interreligious Interfaith