Pope Francis’ Turkey Voyage One of Peace and Reconciliation

On the three-day trip, the Holy Father appealed for unity with the Orthodox Church and prayed at Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

Pope Francis  and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople speak to the faithful after the Divine Liturgy at the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Nov. 30 in Istanbul.
Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople speak to the faithful after the Divine Liturgy at the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Nov. 30 in Istanbul. (photo: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis returned to Rome’s Ciampino Airport Nov. 30 after a three-day apostolic visit to Turkey filled with gestures of peace and reconciliation, words of encouragement for interreligious and ecumenical partners and messages of solace for persecuted Christians in the region.

He began the trip by emphasizing the importance of dialogue in today’s world in order to “reflect sensibly and serenely in our differences and to learn from them.” Addressing civil authorities at the presidential palace in Ankara on Nov. 28, he appealed for religious freedom and wasted no time in calling for reciprocity, saying that Muslims, Jews and Christians should “enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties.”

Observing that the Middle East has been a “theater of fratricidal wars” for “too long,” he said that, with God, the courage of peace can be renewed and that interreligious and intercultural dialogue can make an “important contribution” in ending “all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism.”

Such extremism, he added, can also be countered by the “solidarity of all believers” based on four pillars: respect for human life, religious freedom, commitment to a dignified life and care for creation.

He made explicit reference to Syria and Iraq, highlighting the violation of the “most basic humanitarian laws” of Christians and other religious minorities and stressed that although it is licit to stop an unjust aggressor, the issue cannot be resolved “solely through a military response.” He proposed also fighting against “hunger and sickness” and promoting sustainable development and the protection of creation as a means of achieving peace.


‘Rebellion Against God’

Similar themes and appeals were repeated later that afternoon when he addressed Mehmet Görmez, the president of the Diyanet (Turkey’s department of religious affairs). 

“As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights,” the Pope said, and he again drew attention to the “barbaric violence” perpetrated against Christians and other religious minorities in the region. Such violence in the name of God “warrants the strongest condemnation,” he said, and it demands the “cooperation of all” to combat it, including recognizing “some shared elements” with Islam.

In his address, Görmez said Islam is a “religion of peace,” adding that everyone has a responsibility for the emergence of today’s tragedies. “Those who speak on behalf of God,” like fundamentalists, are part of the problem, Görmez said. Terrorism, he added, is “a rebellion against God, and as Muslims, we reject this extremism and bloodshed.”

The following day, the Pope was flown to Istanbul, where he celebrated Mass at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and other regional Church leaders.


‘Soul of the Church’

During his homily, Francis appealed for unity by discussing how it can be achieved through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He explained how the Holy Spirit is the “soul of the Church” that “brings forth different charisms in the Church that, at first glance, may seem to create disorder.” But he said the Holy Spirit is the “spirit of unity, which is not the same thing as uniformity,” and is able to “kindle diversity.”

Warning against the temptation to resist the Holy Spirit, turn in on ourselves and “slip into Pelagianism,” the Holy Father said the more “we allow ourselves to be humbly guided by the Spirit of the Lord, the more we will overcome misunderstandings, divisions and disagreements.”

On Sunday, Nov. 30, the final day of the Pope’s visit, Francis said the restoration of full communion with the Orthodox Church “does not signify the submission of one to the other or assimilation.” Rather, he said, during a Divine Liturgy in the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul, “it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit.”

In the presence of Patriarch Bartholomew, he went on to say that the Catholic Church “does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.” He then explained where both Churches could cooperate, namely in helping the poor, hungry, unemployed and socially excluded and in eliminating a “globalization of indifference, which today seems to reign supreme,” while “building a new civilization of love and solidarity.”


Boko Haram

The Pope also took the opportunity to condemn a recent attack by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram on a mosque in Kano, Nigeria, that killed more than 100 people. Such attacks, he said, are a “profoundly grave sin against God,” which should spur “reconciliation and communion” between Catholics and Orthodox.

He also noted a further challenge: the tendency of young people to seek happiness in material things and the need to transmit “the true humanism which comes from the Gospel and from the Church’s age-old experience.” He held up the ecumenical Taize community as an example of how different confessions can ignore differences that separate them “because they are able to see beyond them.”

Referring to Patriarch Bartholomew as a “very dear brother,” he said: “We are already on the way, on the path towards full communion, and, already, we can experience eloquent signs of an authentic, albeit incomplete, union.”

Following the liturgical celebration, the Pope and the patriarch signed a joint declaration that reaffirmed their “shared intentions and concerns.” These included a pledge to “intensify our efforts” towards “full unity” to support theological dialogue and to be united in the desire for “peace and stability” in Iraq, Syria and the whole Middle East.

“We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians,” they said, and they referred to an ecumenism of suffering. “Just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the Church, so, too, the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity,” they wrote.

They called for further “constructive dialogue with Islam,” appealed to all religious leaders to pursue interreligious dialogue to build a “culture of peace and solidarity” and prayed for peace in Ukraine and respect for international law.

Before leaving for Rome, the Pope greeted students of the Salesian Youth Oratory, many of whom are refugees. The Pope said he wished to assure them that he shared in their sufferings and that he hoped his visit, by the grace of God, would offer them “some consolation.”

As expected, both small and grand gestures figured highly during the apostolic visit. One of the most striking was Francis’ request for the blessing of Patriarch Bartholomew. The Holy Father proceeded to bow to a surprised patriarch, who kissed his head. It’s the first time a pope has made such a gesture.

Speaking afterwards to reporters, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Francis and Bartholomew are “pushing with incredible strength toward union” through their frequent and warm personal contacts.

“The theological dialogue and other aspects can go forward better or sooner if there is a strong attitude” on the part of the two leaders, he said. “I cannot say that this is the solution to the problem, but this is surely a strong impulse.”

Another key gesture of the visit was when Francis prayed alongside the grand mufti in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, going further than Benedict XVI’s moment of “contemplation” in 2006. Francis told reporters on the plane back to Rome that he “prayed for Turkey; for peace; for the mufti; for everyone; for myself, because I need it.”

In a 45-minute press conference on the plane back to Rome, the Pope said it’s not possible to say, “All Muslims are terrorists, just as we cannot say that all Christians are fundamentalists — we also have fundamentalists among us; all religions have these little groups.”

He also said there needs to be “an international condemnation” of terrorism from Muslims across the world, saying: “No, this is not what the Quran is about.” Speaking out against violence against Christians, he said: “I don’t want to use sugarcoated words: We Christians are being chased from the Middle East.” And he cited the persecution of Christians in Mosul as an example.

Concerning ecumenism and unity between the Catholics and the Orthodox, the Pope said not only is there a spiritual ecumenism, but also “an ecumenism of the blood,” meaning Christians who are martyred today. He also said he and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow want to meet, but given the current situation with the war in Ukraine and other issues, it is currently not possible.

Francis expressed a desire to visit Iraq, but not yet, given the current security concerns. He also said he would have liked to visit a refugee camp during his visit, but his schedule wouldn’t permit it.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.