Unity through variety: Pope Francis in Turkey

Pope Francis has prayed with Muslim clerics and spent time in “silent adoration” in a Turkish mosque. He then went on to describe the richness, variety and diversity of different Christian traditions in the quest for unity.

The Pope was on a visit to Turkey which started with the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that Islamophobia was a serious problem in the West and that Islam must not be confused with terrorism. In an act reminiscent of Pope Benedict’s visit in 2006, Francis was then greeted by Istanbul’s grand mufti, Rahmi Yaran, at the Blue Mosque, so called because of the predominant colour of the 21,000 tiles decorating its interior. The Muslim cleric led him to the mosque’s mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of the Islamic holy city of Mecca and explained that the name is derived from the name for Jesus’s mother, Mary, who is revered by Muslims.

As the grand mufti continued speaking, the Pope fell silent. For several minutes he stood there with his head bowed, his eyes closed and his hands clasped in front of him in what the Vatican described as a “moment of silent adoration”.

After visiting the Blue Mosque, Pope Francis toured the nearby museum Hagia Sofia, the interior of which is decorated with Koranic verses, as well as medieval mosaics of Jesus and Mary. This sixth-century basilica was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.


Pope Francis’ next engagement was the celebration of Mass at Istanbul’s 19th-century Catholic cathedral, which was filled to overflowing despite the fact that Turkey’s population is less than 0.2 per cent Christian. The varied music included African drumming and prayers were said in several languages, including Turkish, Aramaic and English. The congregation included Catholics of the Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean and Latin Rites, and the Pope acknowledged the presence of several Orthodox and Protestant leaders in his homily. In his address, he focused on the challenge of Christian unity, which he said was not the same as uniformity.

“When we try to create unity through our own human designs, we end up with uniformity and homogenisation,” he told the congregation. “If we let ourselves be led by the Spirit, however, richness, variety and diversity will never create conflict, because the Spirit spurs us to experience variety in the communion of the Church,” he said.

Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey had been timed to coincide with November 30, the feast of St Andrew, patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) who is considered first among equals by Orthodox bishops. His predecessors Blessed Paul VI, St John Paul II and emeritus Pope Benedict XVI had also used the opportunity of  visiting Turkey to strengthen ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch. Pope Francis already has a strong relationship with Patriarch Bartholomew, whom he met in Jerusalem and subsequently at the Vatican. At an evening prayer service at the patriarchal Church of St George, they prayed the Our Father together in Latin, then each offered a separate blessing, respectively in Latin and Greek.

Patriarch Bartholomew prayed that St Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom, whose relics had been taken by crusaders in 1204 and returned eight centuries later by St John Paul II, would assist their quest for unity. “May these holy fathers, on whose teaching our common faith of the first millennium was founded, intercede for us to the Lord,” he said, “so that we rediscover the full union of our Churches, thereby fulfilling his divine will in crucial times for humanity and the world.”

Photo: Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (AP)