VATICAN CITY — Church-state relations, ecumenism, Catholic-Muslim dialogue, persecuted Christians and regional conflicts will be the dominant issues of Pope Francis’ highly sensitive apostolic visit to Turkey this week.
Invited by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople for the feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30, Francis will be the fourth pope to visit the Muslim-majority country, at a time of intense conflict and upheaval in the region.
“He comes at a very important moment, with respect to the developing situation in Middle East, and at a time when Turkey’s profile and role with respect to ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is coming close to a turning point,” a senior diplomatic source in Rome told the Register.
Turkey, the most Westernized of Muslim-majority nations, has been criticized for backing Islamists against the Assad regime in a conflict that has cost 191,000 lives.
“The exchange of perspectives between the Turkish authorities and the Pope will also be significant,” he added. “Internal to the Church, there will obviously be the hope that Christian-Turkish relations will be improved by his presence.”
The Nov. 28-30 apostolic trip begins in the capital of Ankara, where, after arriving at 1pm, the Pope will visit the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president and founder of the modern republic.
He will then transfer to the presidential palace, a controversial new complex of 1,000 rooms built at a cost of $615 million. There, he will be received by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other civic leaders. The Turkish authorities say Erdoğan is scheduled to welcome the Pope as a head of state with an “A-class” ceremony.
After a subsequent meeting with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Holy Father will visit the president of religious affairs, Mehmet Görmez, who was recently critical of Francis’ gestures towards Muslims, saying such actions are not dialogue.
On Saturday, the Holy Father will be flown to Istanbul, where he will visit the Hagia Sophia Museum, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, and the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, where he will celebrate Mass.
Later, in the patriarchal Church of St. George, there will be an ecumenical prayer and a private meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew. The two have developed a close bond. The Orthodox patriarch attended Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass in March 2013, the first time since 1054 that a patriarch has attended such an event.
Meeting With Refugees
Observers are surprised that a visit to the many refugees in the region is not in the program. But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has said some may be present when Francis meets students from Catholic schools across the Middle East on Saturday.
On the final day, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass privately with the apostolic delegation. In the patriarchal Church of St. George, the Vatican says a Divine Liturgy will take place, followed by an ecumenical blessing and the signing of a joint declaration between the Pope and the patriarch. In the afternoon, the Holy Father will return to Istanbul Airport for his teturn to Rome, where he is expected to arrive shortly before 7pm.
Father Lombardi told reporters Nov. 17 that Pope Francis may pray and have a moment of private reflection when he visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but unlike during Benedict XVI’s visit in 2006, it will not be formal or public. He added that no public moments of prayer have been scheduled for the Pope’s visit to Hagia Sophia, the cathedral that served as the seat of the ecumenical patriarch until it was converted to a mosque following the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
The persecution of Christians in the region is likely to figure highly during the three-day visit, and it’s likely the issue of reciprocity will be raised: that religious freedoms granted to Muslims in the West should be reciprocated for religious minorities in Muslim-majority states.
If the issue is mentioned, many are hopeful it will get a fair hearing among Muslims.
“What is happening in Iraq may have changed the attitude of the Muslims who see now that both Christian and Muslim have a common enemy,” said professor Francesco Zannini, who lectures in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome. “This may help them understand that denying minority rights is not a matter that harms only the Middle-East Christian communities. In that sense, I think they will welcome such a message.”
Open to Dialogue
During his trip to Strasbourg this week, Pope Francis said one should “never close the door” to dialogue, even with Islamist militants. Zannini said that, in his “long experience of dialogue with Islamists, particularly in Asia, but also in other countries,” he personally believes “this is possible.” But he said the term “Islamist” is “too large and covers several radical groups, which must be considered separately.”
“In the path of dialogue, faith, understanding, empathy and endurance are very important qualities, and I think Pope Francis has all these qualities,” he said. “Besides that,” he added, Francis has said “he will never give up, because he does not consider anything lost.”
Mustafa Cenap Aydin, Turkish director of Istituto Tevere, an Islamic center for promoting dialogue in Rome, takes a similar view.
The Pope, he said, “is a man of dialogue and would like to keep all channels open,” adding that there is a “huge brainwashing process [into Islamism] going on, not only in Muslim countries, but also here.”
Aydin said he read the Pope’s words “as reaching out to all people of goodwill who have been brainwashed.” The Pope’s comments, he added, “should be interpreted as reaching out to those who could come back.”
Security concerns over the visit are high: One Rome diplomatic source told the Register there is a “general fear” that a terrorist will try to attack the Pope, and these fears are “overshadowing” where the focus should be: on engaging important international issues in the Middle East and the Islamist threat to the region.
But Father Lombardi has reassured that security will be tight and, as usual, decided by the local authorities. Others are also playing down the concerns.
Aydin dismissed the fears and believes prayer is the answer: He is organizing a prayer meeting Thursday with Catholics and Vatican officials in a church in Rome to pray for the Pope and the apostolic visit.
Noting that Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey in 2006 was a sign of reconciliation after the controversy over his Regensburg lecture, Zannini thinks Francis’ visit won’t be important for what he might specifically say, but “the way he will communicate” to those in a country that “may play a key role in solving the Middle-East problems and [solutions for] where Muslim, Christians of several denominations and Jews live together.”
Aydin similarly thinks Pope Francis’ powerful gestures could do much to improve Catholic-Muslim and Holy See-Turkish relations. But he also sees the visit has being a “great chance” for Turkey to improve its public image. The country has been brought into disrepute in recent years, largely owing to its political backing of Islamist rebels against Syrian President Assad.
Still, Aydin doesn’t expect many advances from a diplomatic perspective, at least not until Turkey “clarifies its position” regarding terrorism, which he sees as a “huge problem for the region.”
Drawing attention to the deep Christian historical significance of Turkey, which he calls “the second Holy Land,” Aydin stressed that relations between Turkey and the Holy See are “very complicated.”
Since the founding of the republic in 1923, Church property has been confiscated by the Turkish authorities, and although small concessions have been granted in recent years, restrictions remain.
He said he is nevertheless “very hopeful” about the visit, which he believes will be a “great success.” Noting that the Pope chose the name Francis, and in view of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous meeting with the Egyptian Sultan Malik-al-Kamil, Aydin said Muslim-Christian relations are clearly “very important” to the Holy Father.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.