Pope Francis’ Pilgrimage to Turkey Reflects Past and Future


(photo: Goyhan Tan/ Getty Images News)

Like a firefighter compelled to enter a dangerous space, not avoid it, Pope Francis is on a mission to Turkey, a land so significant to the birth and early growth of Christianity, yet stunted in the all-important tasks of calming regional tensions and improving Christian-Muslim relations.

The country has changed in significant ways since the last papal visit, in November 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI faced the same two leaders: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, now President; and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the 260 million-member Orthodox Christian Church, based in Istanbul, once known as Constantinople. 

Anti-Christian hostility — against all Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — has increased in the last eight years, both domestically and in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. 

Pressure on the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople has also increased from Turkish authorities and within the family of Orthodox Churches, especially from the Russian Orthodox Church. Pope Francis has developed a close bond with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and wants progress toward Christian unity to continue — which is the main reason for this trip.

But external actors with less-peace-driven goals than Pope Francis’ could easily drown his delicate efforts; in our world, it seems far easier to cause trouble than to make peace.


Embodying History

Pope Francis, in word and deed, embodies the apostolic succession.

His itinerary mimics the path followed by Pope Benedict XVI, whose silent prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque was a huge gesture of respect toward Islam, positively noted by the Muslim world.

In his equanimity toward the mercurial Turkish government, Pope Francis is following Pope St. John XXIII, who, as Angelo Roncalli, spent 10 years (1934-44) as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece.

Archbishop Roncalli was fluent in Turkish, allowed Turkish to be used in Church ceremonies and documents and became one of the most popular and influential diplomats in the country. He used this influence on behalf of the Church — the government agreed to uncover Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, for example — and on behalf of the persecuted, such as Jews fleeing Europe, whom he helped transit Turkey in order to get to Palestine.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew have already marked, in Jerusalem earlier this year, the accomplishment 50 years ago of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I, who, together, resuscitated relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches by meeting in 1964 in the Holy Land. Three years later, Pope Paul VI traveled to Turkey as the first Catholic pope to visit in more than 1,000 years.

On this trip, Pope Francis continues the pursuit of Christian unity as he celebrates with Bartholomew the Nov. 30 feast of St. Andrew the Apostle — and St. Peter’s brother — who founded the Christian Church in the East.

St. John Paul II’s spirit travels with the Holy Father in the conviction that personal encounter is the key to deeper sympathy and understanding.

And, of course, in the main outline of his message — that violence in the name of religion must be actively opposed by all and that division between Catholic and Orthodox Christians offends God’s will — the Holy Father echoes his righteous predecessors of the contemporary era.


Tense Times

On several visits to Turkey over the last two years, I’ve noted that fear is palpable in many Christian communities. There’s a sense that, to be safe in Turkey, you need to be low profile.

Few priests or ministers are willing to speak on the record; Christians running successful charities, especially for the surging number of refugees, ask not to be identified publicly in order to protect their efforts. 

An Anglican minister told me, “Our church is full every Sunday. I want to preserve my ability to function, and any public discussion of Christians at work in Turkey undermines that.”

Churches in the capital city, Ankara, are unmarked and protected by gates; churches in other cities are often hard to find. You can walk by the cathedral in Istanbul, where Pope Francis offered Mass yesterday, five times and still be wondering where it is. Holy Spirit Cathedral is located on a major boulevard, but it’s behind an unmarked gate. 

In the last eight years, two priests committed to interfaith dialogue have been brutally murdered: In 2006, while kneeling in prayer in his church, Father Andrea Santoro was shot in the back of his head by a 16-year-old student who yelled, “Allah Akbar!” (God is great!) The gun used was traced back to the Iraqi army. 

In June 2010, just before traveling to meet Pope Benedict in Cyprus, Bishop Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar of Anatolia and president of the Turkish Bishops’ Conference, was killed by his 26-year-old driver, who supposedly yelled, “Allah Akbar!” right after. Last year, the murderer was sentenced to 15 years, including time served. The government blames mental illness, but the driver was deemed competent for trial.  

Earlier this year, five men accused of torturing and killing three Protestant missionaries at a Christian publishing house in 2007 were released from a high-security jail on a technicality. Six others charged in the same murder were already free. The alleged perpetrators were all between 19 and 20 years old, and several knew the victims. That same year, a well-known Armenian Christian editor, Hrant Dink, was shot in the head on an Istanbul street by a 17-year-old student.


Religious Radicalization

Although the murder rate is down, Turkey shows signs of increased religious radicalization, too often encouraged by authorities.

Muslim demonstrators' (and 15 million petition signers) demands that the world-famous Hagia Sophia Church — a museum since 1934 and a mosque under the Ottoman Empire — be restored as a mosque seemed to gain support from a deputy prime minister who has helped convert into mosques two smaller Hagia Sophia museums, in Trabzon and Iznik (Nicea), over the last three years.

A Dominican priest living in Istanbul observed that the Turkish government seems highly preoccupied with images of strength, power and recognition of the country’s historical prestige. Tolerance is perceived as a sign of weakness, and there is little trust of  “the other.” 

“Anything that might threaten national unity is suspect, including other religions, other ethnicities and other narratives of Turkey’s past,” he said.  

Imbedded in this chauvinism is an unwillingness to acknowledge the value of other religions generally and Christianity in particular. “I fear, in this worldview, there’s little room for interfaith dialogue, which will suffocate if not premised on mutual respect,” added the priest, who sees some hope in the fact that many Muslims are comfortable visiting Catholic churches, even lighting candles and praying there.

Catholics and Protestants have networks abroad that help sustain missions in Turkey.

The indigenous Greek Orthodox Church, although heir to the Byzantine Empire and thus rich in historical significance and cultural treasure, is almost a beleaguered pauper in relation to the Turkish state, which has been slow to return properties confiscated from the Church and refuses to give it full legal identity and, worst of all, closed its only seminary in 1971.

Patriarch Bartholomew told 60 Minutes in 2009 that the Greek Orthodox “are treated as second-class citizens. …The authorities of our country do not respect this [Orthodox] history.” Last year, a plot to assassinate the patriarch was uncovered.  

Nor will the government acknowledge, for example, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s international status as “first among equals,” leader of 260 million faithful. Instead, the government considers him to be the leader of a small, shrinking community of, maximum, 20,000 souls, by the Church’s own count.

Cemal Usak, a Muslim journalist, expert in Catholic-Muslim relations and strong advocate of interfaith dialogue, explained that, throughout the 20th century, Greek-Orthodox clerics and believers were mocked, bullied, intimidated and even expelled by an angry minority, especially as a result of a crisis with Greece and then with Cyprus.

“There is a streak of Turkish national spirit that flares up, a hatred against foreigners and non-Muslims,” said Usak, who sees political interests stirring the “angry minority.”

According to his advisers, the Ecumenical Patriarchate also experiences disrespect from the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest and wealthiest Orthodox Church in the world, especially since the fall of communism.


Muslims Promoting Dialogue

“But there are also major Turkish Muslim scholars, such as Said Nursi, who advocated interfaith dialogue his whole life and whose writings in the Risale-i Nur continue to inspire many of us,” said Usak. Nursi (1877-1960) even sent his books to Pope Pius XII as a gesture of respect.

Jesuit Father Thomas Michel, a Georgetown professor who has lived in Muslim-majority countries, including Turkey, for most of the last 40 years and is an expert in Catholic-Muslim dialogue, told the Register, “The vast majority of Muslims I have worked and lived with profess Islam as a religion of peace. I have been welcomed with love.”

Father Michel continued, “Not everyone wants interfaith harmony, but those supporting violence are extremely few.  I’ve had good friends who were killed, including Bishop Padovese, but I also know Muslims who sacrificed their lives to protect Christians.”

According to Father Michel, among the most enthusiastic proponents of interfaith dialogue in Turkey are followers of Said Nursi, sometimes known as “Nurcus.” He says there are between 8 and 13 million people meeting in small groups and studying his commentaries.

“Said Nursi is a great Muslim thinker. He believed Muslims and Christians should offer a common witness of values. He considered the days of the jihad of the sword to be over; only the pen or the word could be used to advance Islam. And he saw ignorance, poverty and disunity as common enemies of all believers,” explained Father Michel.

For Father Michel, the ongoing relevance of Muslim scholars such as Nursi and the activism  of some of his followers, such as the U.S.-based Muslim leader Fethullah Gülen, are examples of the existence of real interlocutors for interfaith dialogue — it is not just a high-minded word.   


Pope Francis’ Vision

One of Pope Francis’ primary messages from of the first day of his trip (that Muslims and Christians must together oppose the brutality of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria) is rooted in an understanding of Islam as fundamentally non-violent.

As the Holy Father wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, his 2013 apostolic exhortation on evangelization, “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence” (Paragraphs 250-254).

So it is natural to call on all Muslims of good faith to oppose radical fundamentalists, such as those demolishing Christian communities on Turkey’s border by IS in Iraq and Syria. The barbaric acts of torture and humiliation committed by IS were listed and denounced as “practices which bring shame on humanity” by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Pope Francis wrote to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last August urging the international community to “take action” in northern Iraq to save minorities persecuted by IS. Soon after, Francis told reporters it is legitimate to “stop the unjust aggressor,” referring to IS militants, but he didn’t specify what tactics should be used and cautioned that the international community should be engaged.

He also visited Albania two months ago to highlight its model interfaith relationships, praising national leaders for maintaining the “precious gift” of respect and mutual trust between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics.

Pope Francis’ ability to move political actors such as President Erdogan — a man who has been frustrating the U.S. government with regard to Syria, Iraq and Egypt for years — is not clear, yet the Holy Father has certainly demonstrated he’s willing to try.

Pope Francis allowed his own prestige to benefit President Erdogan within hours of landing, becoming the first head of state received at the president’s lavish, controversial 1,000-plus room presidential palace. The monstrosity was built on a protected forest at a cost of over half a billion dollars; architects and environmentalists had asked the Vatican to avoid legitimizing the place, but the Vatican Press Office said the Pope would go anywhere the host government wanted to meet.

The Holy Father’s gesture in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque yesterday, where he bowed his head in silent prayer together with the grand mufti, echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s similar moment of prayer eight years ago and is intended to convey his respect toward Islam to the millions of Muslims who will see that picture — over the heads of politicians.

What Pope Francis knows he can accomplish in Turkey is pastoral outreach to the beleaguered Christians, including his good friend Patriarch Bartholomew.


Mission Accomplished

When it comes to the life of the Church, a great accomplishment is already evident after the second day of the Pope’s journey: As the pastoral leader of a much fragmented Catholic community in Turkey, Pope Francis has encouraged and deeply inspired the flock, much as St .Paul did in these same lands. 

At Mass yesterday in Istanbul’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, where St. John XXIII ministered (and lived) some 70 years ago, the Pope presided over an exquisite vision of Christian solidarity, demonstrating how love can triumph over hate.

The audience included an array of Christian leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Syro-Catholic patriarch, the Syro-Catholic metropolitan, the Armenian apostolic vicar and Protestant ministers. In the pews, were believers from scores of denominations, as well as recent refugees from Iraq and Syria.

At the end of the Mass, the Pope and ecumenical patriarch kissed each other goodbye, then, together, they blessed the congregation, which erupted into cheers, applause and a round of “Viva, Francesco” chants.

Pope Francis’ greatest ambition, and the true passion of this pontificate, is to deepen the unity of all Christians, and in this, his voyage to Asia Minor is already a success.

Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent
and a contributor to 
Foreign Affairs magazine.