ISTANBUL, Turkey – Pope Francis continues his visit to Turkey this morning, a Muslim nation that has been a crossroads of religious faith, and sometimes conflict, for centuries.
It’s the second-day of his three-day visit. Francis is only the fourth pope to have made the trip.
He was greeted at Istanbul airport by the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Orthodox make up barely one percent of the population of Turkey, and feel increasingly under pressure in a country that is 98 percent Muslim.
The first event of the day, a visit to the 17-century Sultan Ahmet mosque (famously known as the Blue Mosque), served to undercut some of the pressure the Pope is feeling from his hosts who are concerned over what they see as growing “Islamophobic paranoia” in the West.
Turkish religious officials have expressed concern at the increase in attacks on mosques in Europe.
CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey reports a theme of the trip is religious freedom, which the Pope defined as “an eloquent sign of peace.”
Francis prayed alongside Rahmi Yaran, the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, who had his palms turned toward the sky in a Muslim prayer.
“May God accept it,” Yaran told the pope at the conclusion of a poignant moment of Christian-Muslim understanding.
The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi called it a moment of “silent adoration.” Lombardi, who was standing behind the pope, said Francis told the mufti two times that we must “adore” God and not just praise and glorify him.
It was a remarkably different atmosphere from Francis’ first day in Turkey, when the simple and frugal pope was visibly uncomfortable with the pomp and protocol required of him for the state visit part of his trip. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mega-palace, honor guard and horseback escort now behind him, Francis got down to the business of being pope, showing respect to Muslim leaders, greeting Istanbul’s tiny Catholic community, and later meeting with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
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. Francis listened intently through an interpreter as Yaran explained verses of the Muslim holy book.
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.
Stop 2, a short walk away, was the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sofia — originally a Byzantine church, then a mosque, and now a museum.When Paul VI made the first-ever papal visit there in 1967, he fell to his knees in prayer, which deeply offended officially-secular Turkey. Francis made no such mistake today.
Halfway through his tour, the Muslim call for prayer echoed off the Hagia Sophia’s marble walls, an evocative moment that symbolized the crossroads of East and West that 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 favorite corner because the area also features Arabic writings of the names of the Prophet Mohammed and Allah.
“They are all together,” Cengiz said.
A few dozen well-wishers outside Hagia Sophia waved a combination of the Turkish and the flag of the Holy See. One carried a banner that read: “You are Peter.”
By and large, the Pope’s visit has generated little interest among ordinary Turks, and the lack of crowds is one reason why Francis has not been travelling in his preferred open “Popemobile.”
Given that he has also been outspoken about combating the threat from the self-declared Islamic State waging war on Muslims and Christians alike in neighboring Syria and Iraq, his security detail is no doubt relieved.
Later today, Francis will meet with Bartholomew — the real reason for his visit to Turkey.
The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Francis split in 1054 over differences on the power of the papacy. The two spiritual heads will participate in an ecumenical liturgy and sign a joint declaration in the ongoing attempt to reunite the churches.
Francis will celebrate a Mass in one of only five cathedrals in the country. With barely 50,000 Roman Catholics in Turkey, attendance will be a fraction of what he draws at his weekly audiences in St. Peter’s Square.