Pope Francis Prays with Islamic Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran to Promote Religious Tolerance in Turkey

( [email protected] ) Dec 01, 2014 06:27 PM EST
Pope Francis and Cleric Yaran
Pope Francis prays alongside Islamic Cleric Rahmi Yaran. Photo: AP

While the Vatican describes his action as a "moment of silent adoration" of God, Pope Francis' silent prayer alongside a senior Islamic cleric in Turkey on Saturday was a powerful gesture that punctuated a message of religious tolerance from the pope.

Francis' prayer, some contend, was designed to pay homage to the popular pope's recent push for inter-faith relations. While facing Mecca, he bowed his head for several minutes while Istanbul's Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran said an Islamic prayer at his side.

In 2006, Pope Benedict caused quite a stir when he bowed his head to pray in the same mosque during his visit to Turkey. At the time, the Vatican released a statement calling the prayer simply "meditation," although Benedict himself later said that he "certainly turned his thoughts to God" at that time.

While the pope doesn't have a strong religious leadership position among Turkey's small 80,000-member Christian population, some of the country's 75 million citizens were very excited to see Pope Francis this weekend.

"It is very good that he came," Istanbul's Garbis Atmaca, 72, said. "His visit will have a good impact on the Islamic world. It will help foster understanding and peace."

Although Atmaca belongs to Istanbul's Gregorian-Armenian church, he still shows respect to the Roman Catholic leader. "He is a very modest man, the best pope we ever had."

Three Austrian nuns commented that they had never seen such a response to a pope's arrival at the mosque, even with Benedict's visit eight years ago. While the pope enjoys record popularity globally for his social stances on tolerance, his visit to Turkey comes at a time when Christian presence in the area is dwindling. But thanks to the recent militant Islamic presence in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey is now home to thousands of Christian refugees who fled the violence.

"The international community has the moral obligation to assist Turkey in taking care of these refugees," the pope said during his speech.

"Both [the pope and Eastern Orthodox Church leader Bartholomew I] are deeply concerned about the brutal treatment and expulsion of Christians from their homes in the region, which has historically been the cradle of Christianity," John Chryssavgis, theological adviser at the Patriarch of Constantinople, said.

Pope Francis believes that military intervention isn't the answer, though. Instead, we, as Christians, should focus on eliminating poverty and hunger in the area.

But human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz believes that there's more to it. "The Christians in Turkey should stand up for their rights and make more demands," he said.

Pope Francis has been an advocate of religious freedom for everyone, and this recent joint prayer with Islamic cleric Yaran drives the point home more than ever. "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 said at the presidential palace on Saturday. "Any violence looking for religious justification deserves the strongest condemnation because the omnipotent is the God of life and peace [...] Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers."

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