Pope Francis wraps up a three-day trip to Turkey on Sunday by attending a religious ceremony in Istanbul with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.
They are also expected to sign a joint declaration committing themselves to church reunification efforts.
On Saturday, the two spiritual leaders attended an ecumenical service in Istanbul at the Patriarchal Church of St. George, where the pope bowed before Bartholomew and asked for his blessing. Bartholomew obliged by kissing the pontiff’s head. Following the service, the two men met for private talks.
Earlier, the pope visited other key religious and historical sites. Visiting the 17th-century Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, Francis clasped his hands and bowed his head as he stood alongside Istanbul Mufti Rahmi Yaran, who was performing a prayer.
Francis also toured the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine church that was transformed into an imperial mosque after the conquest of Constantinople — present-day Istanbul — and is now a museum. Additionally, he celebrated Mass at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.
For Father Franz Kangler, a Catholic priest in Istanbul, there is happiness over the pontiff’s visit to Istanbul.
“I am just happy because it’s strengthening the position of the small churches and giving them new hope,” he said.
In the last century, Turkey’s Christian community has declined, now accounting for less than 1 percent of the population.
One member of the city’s Catholic community welcomed the pope’s visit but also had concerns: “Appreciate it that he come to this country, because it’s very difficult to come in this country, I think, because for the security.”
With Islamic State forces just across Turkey’s border and jihadist cells suspected of operating in Istanbul, a massive security operation is in force for the pope’s visit. But the pope refused to use a specially designated armored car, instead requesting what he called a “humble car.”
Hope for reunification
Among many Christians in Istanbul there is hope that Francis and Bartholomew can give impetus to church reunification efforts. The two leaders have already reportedly struck a good working relationship; the Istanbul meeting is their second encounter in less than a year.
Francis is the fourth pontiff to visit Turkey after similar trips in the past by Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The trip to the majority Muslim but constitutionally secular nation comes as Turkey grapples with an influx of more than 1.6 million refugees, mainly Syrians, who have fled fighting in their country.