By Sébastien de Courtois, Istanbul for Aid to the Church in Need
The Pope’s trip to Turkey comprised several major stages, all characterised by dialogue: first with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then with Muslim representatives, with the Catholic community in Turkey and finally with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Orthodox world. The visit proceeded under conditions of high security. On the first day of his visit in Ankara, the Pope bowed in front of the mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of the republic, a custom expected of all heads of state. In a joint statement to the press, the Turkish President said he shared the Pope’s views on this meeting as an “image of hope for the entire world”, after which Francis called for inter-religious dialogue. The Pope prayed for the welfare of Turkey so that it may continue to serve as a bridge between civilisations, and he said he was happy to have come to Turkey, a country which was important both historically and geopolitically. Erdogan’s speech exhibited a number of inconsistencies with regard to current events: he warned vehemently that he “would not accept discrimination and hatred”, referring to islamophobia in Europe, but on the other hand he did not mention the islamist excesses in Syria and Iraq. This part of his speech was particularly inappropriate because the Turkish President had never shown concern for the Christians murdered for their faith in this part of the world. He described Syria and Israel as “terrorist” states without considering the regional equilibrium. It is quite easy to see here the game of someone who refuses to admit the truth, especially for a country, Turkey, which is known to have encouraged the beginnings of the Islamic State in its obsession with Bashar al-Assad. He went so far as to say: “The relationship between Islam and terror is the result of islamophobia”. One can certainly talk here about a dialogue of the deaf. “The Pope expressed himself in pastoral terms, whereas the President made a highly political speech,” the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, summarised very diplomatically to the press.
In response the Pope referred to the need to overcome fears and prejudices, recalling the duty to protect religious liberty by granting “the same rights” to all citizens whatever their denomination. At the same time legal recognition should be given to the different Christian denominations, who still did not enjoy official status in Turkey. Muslims, Christians and Jews must assume the same responsibilities. The Pope called on Turkey to set an example of “inter-religious dialogue” in order to stem the fundamentalist threat on its borders. “A greater liberty, a more visible recognition could give the Christians signs of hope and of a better future, signs which would encourage them not to think permanently of emigration to Europe and the West, Father Alberto Ambrosio, a Dominican based in Istanbul, explained. There are still Christians who are leaving Turkey because they do not have prospects of a secure future.”
During the return flight the Holy Father dealt with this question and said that he had suggested to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during their conversation on Friday, that Muslim leaders should issue a global condemnation of terrorism: “I told the President it would be nice to see all Islamic leaders, political, religious or academic, make a clear statement and condemn this, because this would help the majority of the Muslim population,” he added.
The next day, Saturday 29 November, the Pope was welcomed in front of the Blue Mosque, known in Turkey as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, by the Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, who explained to him the meaning of the various verses of the Quran displayed on a part of the dome. Then the Pope closed his eyes to gather his thoughts for a few moments before visiting the ancient basilica Hagia Sophia. The day ended with a mass in the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, a meeting with Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria, then with the religious authorities from other Christian denominations in Turkey and an ecumenical prayer with the Patriarch Bartholomew. This meeting between the two heads of sister Churches – to use the time-honoured expression – is confirmation that the ecumenical dialogue is to be continued. The two religious figures signed a declaration aimed among other things at overcoming the obstacles which have divided the Catholic and Orthodox Churches since 1054. In particular the Pope stressed that “the Catholic Church does not wish to impose any demand other than the profession of a common faith”. To demonstrate their intention, Francis and Bartholomew appeared hand in hand and embraced on the balcony of the Phanar, the seat of the Patriarchate in old Istanbul, following the joint ceremony on Sunday morning. This gesture was greeted with applause from a small crowd of the faithful. The big question for the Orthodox world is still the importance of Russia and its willingness – or otherwise – to enter into the spirit of this dialogue.
Both of them also vigorously defended the eastern Christians threatened by the jihadists in Iraq and Syria. In a joint declaration they gave an assurance that they would never accept “a Middle East without Christians”. “Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced by the violence to leave their houses,” they stated in their texts, regretting “the indifference of many” in the face of their plight. “The terrible situation of the Christians and all those who are suffering in the Middle East demands not only constant prayer, but also an appropriate response on the part of the international community,” the two prelates insisted. Finally, Pope Francis expressed the wish on Sunday evening that he would see the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border as a sign of reconciliation between the two countries. According to a report of the Catholic News Service (the news agency linked to the American Bishops Conference), during his return trip the Pope recalled the expression “the outstretched hand” used by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2013, speaking of the genocide of 1915. The Supreme Pontiff wished for the border, which had been closed for more than 20 years, to be reopened. Turkey had closed the border to Armenia in 1993 after the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh had escalated.
Sébastien de Courtois