Pope Francis prayed silently alongside Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran in the Blue Mosque on Saturday, a gesture marking inter-religious harmony, as neighbouring Syria and Iraq fight a fierce battle against extremism.
The Pope took off his shoes as he entered the mosque, and bowed his head for several minutes, facing Mecca, while standing next to Grand Mufti Yaran, as both religious leaders prayed, in a joint “moment of silent adoration” of God.
Several hundred people, watched from behind police barricades as the pope then walked to the nearby Aya Sofya museum, once the Christian church Hagia Sophia.
School children were also there to witness the event, waving Turkish and Vatican flags and chanting “Long live Pope Francis” in Italian.
The Sultanahmet mosque, or the Blue mosque, opened in 1616 and is the most famous in Turkey.
In a speech to the Turkish top cleric, Pope Francis said that fighting hunger and poverty, instead of military intervention, were key to stopping Islamist militants carrying out “barbaric violence” in Syria and Iraq.
The Pope said “an extremist and fundamentalist group” had subjected entire communities in Turkey’s southern neighbours to “barbaric violence simply because of their ethnic and religious identity”.
He was referring to Islamic State insurgents, who have captured swathes of neighbouring Syria and Iraq, persecuting and killing Shi’ite Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others who do not share their ultra-radical brand of Sunni Islam.
After visiting Turkey’s Muslim community, Francis was later passionately welcomed by Istanbul’s small Roman Catholic community at the Holy Spirit Cathedral where he celebrated Mass. Several thousand people from a Catholic population of around 53,000 packed the Cathedral, while others watched from its outdoor courtyard.
Following that visit, the Pope went to a joint service with Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of nearly 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The aim behind this visit is to hold a joint ceremony to renew their commitment to reunite the eastern and western branches of Christianity.
After meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan the Pope commented that it was lawful to stop an unjust aggressor but urged a concerted commitment to devote resources “not to weaponry, but to the other noble battles worthy of man — the fight against hunger and sickness”.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics called for inter-religious dialogue to end of all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism, and stressed the importance of freedom of religion and of expression.
“It is essential that all citizens – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties,” he said.
For his part Erdogan called for measures to prevent “escalating racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in the West,” adding “the racist perception which associates Islam with terrorism deeply hurts billions of Muslims around the world”.