ISTANBUL, Turkey — In a move that drew some concerns from onlookers worldwide, the Roman Catholic pontiff known as Francis visited Turkey’s Blue Mosque on Saturday, expressing reverence during a moment of prayer observed by the nation’s grand mufti, who led him on a tour of the Islamic facility.
According to reports, Francis took off his shoes, folded his hands and bowed his head, standing silently next to Rahmi Yaran, who serves as the nation’s highest Islamic leader as grand mufti. The two faced Mecca as Yaran prayed with his palms raised.
The Vatican described the gesture as a “moment of silent adoration” during the Roman Catholic leader’s visit to the 17th century Sultan Ahmet mosque. Other descriptions of the visit state that it is meant to show “mutual respect” for each other’s religion. Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI also visited the facility during his tenure.
“May Allah accept it,” Yaran said following the time of prayer.
In providing a tour of the turquoise-tiled mosque, Yaran spoke to the Roman Catholic leader about prayer, and expounded on verses from the Koran. Francis remarked about the importance of adoring God and not only worshiping him.
“His visit to this secular but Muslim country of nearly 77 million people also offers the opportunity for Pope Francis to join Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for celebrations in Istanbul of the feast of St. Andrew,” the Catholic News Service reported.
Following his visit to the Blue Mosque, Francis also visited the Haghia Sofia, a former Byzantine basilica that was converted into a mosque following the Muslim conquest of 1453. It now serves as a museum featuring both Roman Catholic and Islamic relics and mosaics.
The pontiff’s visit to the museum and mosque is not the first time that he has made gestures or issued statements seeking understanding between the two religions. As previously reported, last year, Francis issued a written greeting to Muslims in recognition of the close of the Islamic holiday Ramadan.
“Turning to mutual respect in inter-religious relations, especially between Christians and Muslims, we are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values,” he wrote. “Particular respect is due to religious leaders and to places of worship. How painful are attacks on one or other of these!”
Additionally, as previously reported, Francis held his first ecumenical meeting last March, greeting Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, as well as those who ascribe to no faith at all. During the occasion, he praised the Muslim leaders that had come for the meeting, remarking that they were men who “adore the one, living, and merciful God and who call upon Him in prayer.”
“For my part, I wish to assure you, following in the path of my predecessors, of my firm will to continue on the path of ecumenical dialogue,” Francis said, referencing the Second Vatican Council. “I also ask of you the kindness of a special prayer for myself, so that I might be a pastor in harmony with Christ’s heart.”
Last December, he met with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), at the Vatican, who he asked to pray for him in the days ahead.
However, some are concerned about the pontiff’s ecumenism with Muslims. Mike Gendron of Proclaiming the Gospel Ministries of Plano, Texas, told Christian News Network following Francis’ meeting with Ihsanglu that the influential religious leader’s actions align with Roman Catholic teaching.
“The pope’s request for prayers from the Muslims is consistent his belief that they worship the same God,” he stated. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 841, reads, ‘The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims … together with us they adore the one, merciful God.’ This is a blatant rejection of the teachings of Christ, who declared He is the only way to the Father. Those who do not believe Jesus is God will die in their sins.”