Pope Francis Prays in Mosque in Show of Commitment to Christian-Muslim Relations

ISTANBUL — Pope Francis further demonstrated his commitment to improving relations between Christians and Muslims on Saturday, as he prayed in Istanbul’s historic Blue Mosque and visited the Hagia Sophia—two powerful symbols of the Muslim and Christian faiths.

On the second of a three-day trip to Turkey, the pontiff removed his shoes before entering the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles embellishing its walls. After a tour of the cavernous 17th-century mosque, he stood alongside Istanbul Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran, facing in the direction of Mecca, and bowed his head in long prayer.

The move was an important public demonstration of Pope Francis’ commitment to Christian-Muslim dialogue. Some have raised questions as to whether such dialogue is fruitful given the persecution of Christians by Islamic extremists.

On Friday, the pope demanded that all religions enjoy the same rights, a veiled reference to the problems that Christians still suffer in Turkey, where about 99% of the population is Muslim. Christian communities complain that they struggle to gain permits to rebuild or refurbish buildings and say the government has been slow to follow through on promises to return properties confiscated decades ago.

But the pontiff also said dialogue can help bring an “end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism.”

In turn, during his meeting with the pope, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced discrimination and violence suffered by Muslims in the West.

The pontiff’s prayer in the Blue Mosque on Saturday replicated one by Pope Benedict XVI there in 2006, although the circumstances were far different. Pope Benedict’s moment of prayer came in the wake of protests and anger in many Muslim countries, including Turkey, over a speech he gave that appeared to link Islam and violence.

By contrast, Pope Francis has enjoyed a generally warm reception in Turkey, although the country’s tiny Catholic population means the visit has lacked the huge events, such as large outdoor masses, typical of many papal visits. Security has been far lighter than during Pope Benedict’s visit. Two police helicopters hovered over the mosque during Pope Francis’ visit, after the building was cleared of tourists and worshipers. Hundreds of police have been deployed in Istanbul for the visit.

Some locals welcomed Pope Francis. “It’s good that he came to a Muslim country,” said Ferit Ogulmus, a 54-year-old owner of a shop near the mosque, who said he was worried about the advance of Islamic extremist in neighboring countries. “We need more of these visits in these chaotic times.” Hasan Bahadir, another shopkeeper, said he worried about growing Islamophobia in the West. “There is a slandering campaign against Muslims,” said the 63-year-old. “There is fear. They’re afraid of us trying to take over, while most of us are just trying to make a living.”

After visiting the Blue Mosque, Pope Francis visited the Hagia Sophia, a Christian church for nine centuries before being transformed into a mosque in the 15th century. The Hagia Sophia is today a museum, but it was for centuries the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and it still remains highly symbolic in a country where Christians face pressure.

During his tour of the Hagia Sophia, the Muslim call to prayer was heard outside. The pope wrote two dedications—one in Greek and the other a Latin citation of a psalm—in the guest book.

The pope ended the day with a meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the 300 million members of the Orthodox Christian Church, where he expressed hopes for greater unity among Christians.

Pope Francis called for Christian churches to “overcome misunderstandings, divisions and disagreements and be a credible sign of unity and peace.” Patriarch Bartholomew in turn said the pope’s strong support for Christian unity could help advance “the restoration of full communion between our churches.” The two leaders recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

The Eastern churches and the Roman Catholic Church split nearly 1,000 years ago, and full reunion of the two is unlikely. However, relations have warmed notably in recent years.

Pope Benedict XVI “was very big on the dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics, as a bulwark against the rising tide of secularism,” said Francesco Cesareo, president of Assumption College, a Roman Catholic college in Massachusetts. “Francis is picking up where he left off.”

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew have developed particularly close ties since the pontiff was elected in March 2013. The patriarch attended the pope’s installment in Rome; Saturday’s meeting in Istanbul is the fourth public meeting between the pair.

Pope Francis concludes his visit Sunday with a meeting with the grand rabbi of Turkey, followed by a joint service with Patriarch Bartholomew. The service will commemorate the feast day of St. Andrew, the patron saint of the Orthodox Church.

Turkey is the sixth country the Argentine-born pope has visited since his election, and the fourth with a Muslim majority. In January, he will visit Sri Lanka and the Philippines and is due to travel to the U.S. and France next year.