John L. Allen Jr.
Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, is seen in this 1998 file photo. Pope Francis will visit the mosque during a trip to Turkey Nov. 28-30. (Mehmet Gulbiz, EPA/CNS)
Recently the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis will travel to Turkey Nov. 28-30, the official purpose for which is largely ecumenical. He’ll visit Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on the feast of St. Andrew, considered their patron in much the same way Catholics regard St. Peter as the first pope.
The trip is also a way for Francis to express concern for violence in the region unleashed by the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate, and to expand his outreach to the Islamic world.
But what’s not yet clear is how much of a push Francis will make on another front: An increasingly virulent anti-Christian climate in Turkey, which tends to simmer constantly until it boils over into lethal violence.
Turkey is officially secular. But sociologically it’s an Islamic society, with a population of 76 million that’s 97 percent Muslim. There are just 150,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox. Only the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities are recognized, so other forms of Christianity operate in a gray zone – not quite illegal, but not quite fully legitimate either.
Despite Turkey’s reputation for moderation, there’s a strong ultra-nationalist current, with beachheads in the security services and the military, which sees the West and Christianity as eternal foes. Christians report various forms of harassment, including difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches, surveillance, unfair judicial treatment, and discrimination in housing and employment.
In 2009, the normally diplomatic Bartholomew told “60 Minutes” that he feels “crucified” by a state that wants to see his Church die out.