Pope Francis left Ankara and arrived to Istanbul this morning at 9:45am. At the airport he was welcomed with an embrace by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.
From the airport, the Pope made his way to the famed Sultan Ahmed Mosque. There he was greeted by the Grand Mufti of Istanbul and several Muslim representatives.
Also known as the “Blue Mosque” for the blue tiles that adorn its interior, the 77 year old Pontiff is the third Pope in history who visited a Muslim place of worship. St. John Paul II was the first Pontiff to visit a mosque in 2001 when he visited the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Pope Benedict XVI also visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul on November 30th, 2006.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Pope Francis removed his shoes and was given a brief tour by the Grand Mufti, Rahmi Yaran. Shortly after, the Holy Father, with hands clasped and head bowed, spent a little over two minutes in silent prayer. Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Holy See Press Office director, specified that the Pope’s gesture was one of “silent adoration” to God.
Grand Mufti Yaran gave the Pope a blue mosaic with a tulip representing God, a symbol the Grand Mufti said, was “a common symbol” among Muslims and Christians. The Holy Father thanked him warmly for the gift.
As they were leaving, the Pope spoke to the Grand Mufti, saying, “We must be thankful to God, [we must] praise Him and adore Him.”
The Pope was then led to the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Patriarchal basilica that was later turned into an imperial mosque and is now a museum.
After he was given a tour of the Museum, the Holy Father wrote in the Book of Honor of Saint Sophia. In it, the Holy Father wrote:
“Quam dilecta tabernacula tua Domine [How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord] (Psalmus 83). Contemplating the beauty and harmony of this sacred place, my soul is raised to the Almighty, source and origin of every beauty, and I ask the the Most High to always guide the hearts of humanity on the path of truth, goodness and peace.”
After signing the book, Pope Francis was escorted to the Apostolic Nunciature in Istanbul where he will have lunch with 50 representatives of the local Catholic community and their respective Bishops.
Although 90% of the Turkish population is Muslim, hundreds of people were outside greeting the Pope with songs in front of the Hagia Sophia and along the route of the papal motorcade.