A day after calling for inter-religious dialogue to end Islamist extremism, Pope Francis on Saturday visited a 17th-century mosque in Istanbul and spent several minutes in a silent prayer with his head bowed in the direction of Mecca.
The pope made the gesture to promote Christian-Muslim relations at the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, on Saturday, the second day of his three-day Turkey visit, according to the Vatican Radio.
He removed his shoes before entering the mosque with blue tiles on its walls. Standing next to him was the Grand Mufti, who explained about the Koranic verses illustrated on the stones pillars and the dome.
The pontiff also toured on Saturday the nearby Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine basilica which was turned into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in the mid-15th century before being transformed into a museum.
The pontiff's visit is being seen as an effort to foster inter-faith relations.
"Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers," the pope said Friday in a speech to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other political leaders on the first day of his pastoral visit to the cities of Ankara and Istanbul.
"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," the pope added in his speech Friday. "They will then find it easier to see each other as brothers and sisters who are travelling the same path, seeking always to reject misunderstandings while promoting cooperation and concord. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression, when truly guaranteed to each person, will help friendship to flourish and thus become an eloquent sign of peace."
Also on Saturday, Francis celebrated the only public Mass of his Turkey visit in Istanbul's Latin Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Holy Spirit.
Surrounded by the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and leaders of all the other Christian communities, Francis reflected on how the Holy Spirit creates unity among believers. When we let the Spirit unsettle us to move us out of our comfort zones, turning instead to our brothers and sisters "with that tenderness which warms the heart," then we have been touched by the Holy Spirit, he was quoted as saying.
The pope's emphasis on having dialogue and improving inter-faith relations comes at a time when the Christian and Yazidi minorities are being targeted and killed in Iraq and Syria, large territories of which are now controlled by the Islamic State, or ISIS, terror group.
The ISIS, an al-Qaeda offshoot, seeks to form an Islamic emirate in the Levant region through "jihad." In Iraq, ISIS men have killed hundreds of civilians. Numerous members of the Christian and Yazidi minorities have also been killed, and tens of thousands of them have fled their homes. About 5,000 Yazidi girls and women were recently taken captive by ISIS to be sold or given to fighters as slaves.