3:39 am - Thursday November 5, 2015

Pope visits iconic religious sites in Istanbul

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Turkey Pope

ISTANBUL — His head bowed and hands clasped in front of him, Pope Francis on Saturday stood in two minutes of silent prayer facing east inside one Istanbul’s most important religious sites, as he shifted gears toward more religious affairs on the second leg of his three-day visit to the mainly Muslim nation.

Following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI who visited Turkey in 2006, Francis prayed alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaram, who had his palms turned toward the sky in a Muslim prayer inside the 17th-century Sultan Ahmet mosque.

“May God accept it,” Yaram told the pope, at the end of the prayer aimed at showing respect for Islam and encouraging interfaith relations.

Earlier, Francis nodded, smiled and looked up in awe as Yaram gave him a tour of the mosque which is famed for its elaborate blue tiles and cascading domes.

Benedict had visited Turkey amid heightened Christian-Muslim tensions and prayed at the mosque in a gesture that was appreciated by many Turks. The Vatican added the stop at the Blue Mosque at the last minute to show Benedict’s respect for Muslims.

Francis is also set to visit the nearby Haghia Sofia, which was the main Byzantine church in Constantinople — present-day Istanbul — before being turned into a mosque after the Muslim conquest of the city in 1453.

A few dozen well-wishers outside Haghia Sophia waved a combination of the Turkish and the flag of the Holy See. One carried a banner that read: “You are Peter.”

Francis nearly tripped over while walking the carpet from his plane to a VIP terminal at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, with the governor of Istanbul and Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christian helping him when he tottered.

Meeting with Turkish leaders in the capital Ankara a day earlier, Francis urged Muslim leaders to condemn the “barbaric violence” being committed in Islam’s name against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. He reaffirmed that military force was justified to halt the Islamic State group’s advance, and called for greater dialogue among Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths to end fundamentalism.

Later on Saturday, 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.

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