In Turkey, Pope Francis Reaches Out To Muslims & Fosters Peace

On his second day in Turkey, Pope Francis visited a mosque in Istanbul — a symbolic gesture meant to repair the tenuous relationship between Catholics and Muslims. Although several of his predecessors, including Pope Benedict XVI, have traveled to the predominantly Muslim nation — Turkey is home to just 35,000 Catholics — Francis' visit is still, like most aspects of his papacy, atypical. His trip is seen as a pivotal moment for Christian-Muslim relationships, which have fractured over the years due to theological disputes, terrorism, and even an assassination attempt.

Francis entered one of Turkey's most famous mosques, the Sultan Ahmet ("Blue Mosque"), on Saturday with Islamic leader Rahmi Yaran. There, the two religious leaders prayed alongside each other, in what Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi called "a moment of silent adoration." Following his reflection at the Sultan Ahmet, Francis visited the Hagia Sophia, a historic Greek Orthodox basilica that later became a Muslim mosque and now serves as a museum.

The pope's shared moment of prayer with Yaran, as brief as it was, was a significant act, underscoring Francis' commitment to fostering peaceful relations between the Catholic and Muslim communities. Although Pope Benedict also traveled successfully to Turkey — where he, too, visited the Sultan Ahmet — the relationship between the world's two foremost religions was marred in the last decade when Benedict called the teachings of Islam "evil and inhumane," citing a medieval text. The former pope's words angered Muslims across the world, triggering an attack on two West Bank churches in Israel in 2006. Benedict later apologized for his remarks.

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But Francis' visit also comes on the heels of acts of terrorism, fears of rising fundamentalism and war in Iraq and Syria. In this hostile climate, Francis has been fostering understanding between the two disparate religions. On Friday, the first day of his three-day trip to Turkey, the pontiff met with Turkey's top cleric Mehmet Gormez and delivered these sobering words on the unfolding situation in Iraq and Syria:

Everyone suffers the consequences of these conflicts and the humanitarian situation is unbearable. I think of so many children, the suffering of so many mothers, of the elderly, of those displaced, and of all refugees, of every type of violence. ... Of particular concern is the fact that, owing mainly to an extremist and fundamentalist group, that entire communities, especially — though not exclusively Christians and Yazidis — have suffered and continue to suffer barbaric violence simply because of their ethnic and religious identity.

On Friday, Francis also met privately with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where they discussed peace, freedom, and how to care for the growing number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lombardi told Vatican Radio. "The Pope stressed that dignity of the person, the respect of the freedom to express themselves, is very important and it has not to be oppressed," Lombardi said.

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In his public address on Friday, Francis addressed the strife in Syria, caused by the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Francis has been extremely outspoken against ISIS, who it was previously speculated was targeting the pontiff, and of course denounced the group's attacks. However, he also urged Turkey's government and religious to work together to find "adequate solutions" to combat ISIS. "We, Muslims and Christians, are the bearers of spiritual treasures of inestimable worth," Francis said.

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