Pope Benedict XVI stood in silent meditation in one of Turkey's most famous mosques Thursday in a dramatic gesture of outreach to Muslims after outrage from the pontiff's remarks linking violence and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
The pope, accompanied by an Islamic cleric, bowed his head for nearly a minute inside the 17th century Blue Mosque in only the second papal visit to a Muslim place of worship. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, visited a mosque in Syria in 2001.
The mosque visit was added to Benedict's schedule as a "sign of respect" during his first papal trip to a Muslim nation, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said last week.
The pope removed his shoes before entering the carpeted expanse of the mosque, which is officially known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque after the Ottoman sultan Ahmet I, who ordered its construction. But it's widely called the Blue Mosque after its elaborate blue tiles.
Benedict also visited the 1,500-year-old Haghia Sophia, a domed complex that was once a spiritual center of Christianity and then converted to a mosque in the 15th century. The site became a museum following the sweeping secular reforms that formed modern Turkey in the 1920s.
A massive operation by Turkish security was in force around Istanbul's ancient center, including armed security officers on the minarets that were added to the famed landmark following the Muslim capture of the city.
About 150 nationalists demonstrated against the visit to the Haghia Sophia, gathering at a square less than a mile away and urging the government to open the museum to Muslim worship. Nationalists view the planned visit as a sign of Christian claims to the site and a challenge to Turkish sovereignty.
"Haghia Sophia is Turkish and will remain Turkish," one protest sign read. Riot police surrounded the demonstrators to prevent them from advancing toward the site.
Earlier in the day, in a symbolic display of unity, Benedict met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Christian Orthodox.
At a joint press conference following their meeting, Benedict called divisions among Christians a "scandal to the world." at a joint ceremony Thursday with the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian church, which split from Catholicism nearly 1,000 years ago.