In a study of contrasts, Pope Francis, all simplicity in his white soutane, entered the $600 million palace of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo ? an and called for the “solidarity of all believers” in opposing religious fanaticism.
In his address, Pope Francis praised Turkey as “a natural bridge between two continents and diverse cultures,” and spoke admiring words for Turkey’s role in providing asylum to refugees from the Syrian Civil War.
“Turkey, by virtue of its history, geographical position and regional influence, has a great responsibility,” the Pope said. “The choices which Turkey makes and its example are especially significant and can be of considerable help in promoting an encounter of civilizations and in identifying viable paths of peace and authentic progress.”
Since 2011, the fighting between government forces and various militant groups has displaced an estimated 13.6 million Syrians from their homes. Over three million have fled the country, more than half that number settling in Turkey. The emergence of the Islamic State has accelerated this displacement. Over a single weekend this past September, more than 130,000 Syrians entered Turkey just ahead of IS forces, which were advancing on the city of Kobani.
Though the Turkish government classifies Syrian asylum-seekers as guests rather than refugees, it has so far spent $4 billion providing for their basic needs. Amnesty International has criticized the international community for allowing Turkey to bear such a heavy burden. Some Turks are beginning to resent their presence in the country, citing competition from unregistered Syrian businesses.
Pope Francis’ address marked the beginning of a three-day tour, which includes visits to the Hagia Sophia museum and the Blue Mosque, as well as prayer with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Pope lay a wreath at the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, and met with Mehmet Görmez, a Muslim cleric who serves as the president of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs.
“We have pulled the world to the brink of disasters with our own hands. We can’t put the whole responsibility on evil forces,” Görmez said during the meeting. He denounced terrorism as “a rebellion against God,” adding that “as Muslims we reject this extremism and bloodshed.”
The “encounter of civilizations” promoted by the Pope in this visit recalls the “culture of encounter” he has spoken throughout his papacy of wanting to build. Former National Catholic Reporter, Vatican observer John Allen has called the phrase “elastic enough to embrace a wide range of possible meanings,” and pointed out that Pope Francis has employed it “in too many venues to count.” But it seems, in general, to connote a search for common ground and dedication to concerted action among apparent adversaries. In a homily delivered shortly after his election, he used it to stress that atheists, too, were capable of doing good.
The Turkish public response to the papal vist has been polite, but muted. Though Francis entered the presidential compound to a cannon salute, as befitted his position as head of Vatican City State, the Turkish tabloid Posta grumbled about “martial law,” referring to the 2,700 police officers in Ankara and over 7,000 in Istanbul mobilized to guarantee the Pontiff’s safety. The BBC notes that “there were none of the thousands of people lining the streets,” as there are in countries with a majority Christian population.
Turkey’s Christians, who number about 120,000, make up about 0.2% of the population, a percentage that has fallen from 20% over the past century. In part, the drop results from an organized population transfer that sent 1 million Christians to live in Greece, while 300,000 Muslims resettled in Turkey. It also reflects the deportation and murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenians — an act the Turkish government.refuses to call genocide.
Formally, Christians are under no legal handicap, but many have complained of popular prejudice, which has sometimes turned deadly. In 2006, a Catholic priest, Father Andrea Santoro was murdered by O?uzhan Akdin, a high-school student armed with a 9 mm pistol that had originally been issued to the Iraqi army. In 2010, Msgr. Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, was stabbed to death by Murat Altun, his driver.
Turkish President Erdo ?an called the papal visit, “a very significant and very crucial step which will enhance the hopes of peace in our region.” But some observers blame Erdo ?an’s Islamic Justice and Development Party for creating a climate fundamentally hostile to Christians.
“Society is becoming Islamized,” Father Iulian Pista, a priest serving in Istanbul, told the BBC’s Mark Lowen. “Recently, I’ve seen youngsters defecate and urinate in my church. They shout ‘Allahu akbar’ [God is great]. I also believe God is great but the way they say it is threatening.”
The threatening feeling for non-Muslim minorities here is coming again,” agreed Fotis Benlisoy, an Orthodox believer of Greek ethnicity living in Turkey, who added that he and his co-religionists are starting to think in terms of “an escape strategy.”
As a token of goodwill, the Pope presented Erdogan with a mosaic reproduction of a painting by Italian artist Antonello Riommi depicting the Castel Sant’ Angelo. In return, Erdo ?an gave the Pope a collection of “Ottoman-themed gifts,” including an edict from 15 th-century Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror guaranteeing freedom of worship to Bosnian Christians.
Max Lindeman writes from Turkey.
Max Lindenman (3)