By Sébastien de Courtois, Istanbul (Turkey)
Pope Francis will be in Turkey from 28 to 30 November. First he will be visiting Ankara, the capital, then Istanbul in order to meet Patriarch Bartholomew. This visit has great symbolic value and it follows the tradition started by Paul VI in1967, when he met Athenagoras, the Patriarch at that time. It was a historic step for a Roman pontiff and an Orthodox prelate since, it should be recalled, the two worlds –Orthodox and Catholic – had been separate since the schism of 1054. The visit of Paul VI on the Bosporus has lived on in the memory of old residents of Istanbul, who can still recall it. Since then the tradition has become established for each freshly elected Holy Father to go to Turkey at the joint invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Turkish authorities. John Paul II went there in 1979 at the beginning of his pontificate on the occasion of the Feast of Saint Andrew, the Apostle who preached the Gospel in the Second Rome, according to tradition. In 2006, the visit of Benedict XVI also made an impact. In the heart of Istanbul, there are visible signs of this visit on the major Istiklâl Avenue, on the Square of St. Anthony, where a huge portrait of the Pope and the Patriarch was displayed.
In contrast to other visits, Francis will not be going to Izmir – the ancient Smyrna yet the seat of a Catholic Bishop – nor will he visit Ephesus on the Aegean coast, an important place in the history of Christianity. It is in this Roman city that Paul began to preach, where he overturned the idols and where the council of 431washeld, establishing the title of Mother of God – Theotokos – for the Virgin Mary.
At Ankara, after the formal meetings with President Tayyip Erdogan and the Minister of Religious Affairs, the Pope will go to bow before the monumental tomb of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, as a gesture of friendship. The next day in Istanbul, Francis will go to the Hagia Sophia – the large church of the Orthodox world – accompanied by the Patriarch. Even though it has always been a museum since 1934, certain Islamist tendencies would like to have seen it transformed into a mosque just as it was on the eve of the conquest of the city by the Ottomans in May 1453. Accompanied by the Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, the Pope will then proceed on foot into the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque. In the afternoon he will proceed to hold a mass for the Catholics of Turkey in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Harbiye. The next day he will take part in the celebrations for the Feast of Saint Andrew in the company of the Patriarch in the venerable church of Saint George in the ancient Greek quarter of Phanar.
“We have received more than 500 requests for the press, although we will only be able to grant thirty of them. Our church is small …” says Father Dositheos Anagnostopulos, who is in charge of communication for the Orthodox Patriarchate. The true object of the Papal visit is surely this meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch, which is important for the Churches even though the two men know one another well. Bartholomew was present in Rome when the new Pope was enthroned in March 2013, a gesture which was well noted, and then they met in Jerusalem at the Holy Sepulchre last May, and several weeks later they met in the gardens of the Vatican for a joint invocation for peace.
“The Pope is very sensitive to the search for ecumenism between our two sister Churches. If he comes to Constantinople it is to encourage the march towards unity. Ecumenism is a long road. In the present world what is called for is a strong symbol to show that the Churches are seeing one another and talking … The divisions are history. Every year a delegation from the Vatican is present at the Phanar for the Feast of St. Andrew,” explains Brother Gwenolé Jeusset, a Franciscan of Saint Mary Draperis, one of the churches in the district of Beyoglu. The Patriarch has in the past already shown his interest in this question: “It’s not simply a matter of reiterating a strong ecumenical commitment made fifty years ago, but of intensifying the meetings in order to clear the way for a new stage in the establishment of full communion between our two sister Churches. We must give a visible sign that ecumenism is not running out of steam.” Last October in Istanbul he himself held a conference in Italian –a language which he speaks fluently, as he does French and English – in order to celebrate the sanctification of Saint John XXIII, who had been Roman Nuncio in Turkey.
It is certain that the political aspect of this visit reinforces the Patriarch in his positions in Turkey. The reasons for conflict are numerous: the matter of Church properties – buildings and land –, the reopening of certain churches for worship, such as the monastery of Sumela near Trabzon on the Black Sea, or more importantly the reopening of the Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki, which was closed arbitrarily in 1971. Located one hour by boat from Istanbul, the building is constantly maintained by a handful of monks. The classrooms are in the same state as they were forty years ago and the extremely rich library was recently subject to an immense stock take. “What we have been demanding for a long time together with the other Churches present in Turkey, like the Armenians and the Syriacs,” Mgr. Louis Pelâtre, Latin Vicar Apostolic of Istanbul, confirms, “is legal recognition of our statutes, but this will not be yet be restored in the system of the Turkish Republic. We have no legal personality. And so officially we don’t exist! I have been in Turkey for 44 years and in this matter, as in that of the Halki seminary, I have not observed any development, none at all. I know that the members of the Orthodox Church are suffering a lot as a result …”
Finally, the situation of Christians in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Syria after the dramatic events of this summer cannot fail to arise in the conversation between the two religious representatives. Being a transit location for migrants, Turkey is confronted with the war being fought at its gates and with the disastrous effect of the Islamic State. And also the question of refugees, since Turkey shelters more than two million Syrians and many others coming from Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa. Pope Francis made his first journey to the island of Lampedusa in order to make the European authorities sensitive to these human dramas. For a number of years the churches in Istanbul have again been full due to the unexpected presence of these thousands of the faithful. The clergy are sometimes overwhelmed. “On Sunday morning in the cathedral four masses are said in succession, each in a different language. The faces of the unfortunates are those of the universal Church. Through this contact we are rediscovering the original meaning of the Gospel …”Brother Gwenolé concludes.
There remains the delicate subject for Turkey of the evocation, or not, of the Armenian genocide, towards which Pope Francis has shown himself to be extremely sensitive. Last June he referred to the persecutions before the Armenian Catholics Aram I. There is no doubt that the Pope will be welcomed with joy by all the Christian communities in Turkey, but also by a number of Muslim Turks who are sensitive to his talk of an opening up and dialogue.
Even though Turkey´s Christian population is barely 0,3%, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported 100 projects in Turkey in the last twenty years. A significant amount of ACN´s help has gone towards Iraqi and Syrian Refugees in the Eastern part of the country. Since 2010 ACN donated a total of €130.000,- to the Iraqi refugees, mainly via the Chaldean Church and the Salesian Fathers in Istanbul. The Salesians look after families and are particularly concerned to ensure that the children continue to receive a school education.
Aid to the Church in Need has also helped Syrian refugees in Eastern Turkey, since the Crisis in Syria began. From 2013 to 2014 ACN has donated a total of €47.000,- towards their needs.