On his first day in Turkey, Pope Francis emphasized the urgent need to bring an end to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and in particular in Syria and Iraq, and called for “the solidarity of all believers” to counteract “fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears which foster misunderstanding and discrimination” which fuel such conflicts and much else.
He addressed this pressing need for peace and the importance of such solidarity when he spoke to the Turkish authorities in the newly built one-thousand room presidential White Palace, within two hours of his arrival here in Ankara, the capital of this country of 76 million, which ranks as the world’s sixth most populous Muslim state.
After receiving a state welcome, with a guard of honor and 21 gun salute, and conversing for one hour with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - 30 minutes in private, and a further 30 minutes together with a small group of senior advisors from both sides, Pope Francis went to the heart of a problem that is close to his heart: peace in the Middle East region and the contribution that Christian and Muslim religious leaders can make to overcoming and preventing such conflicts.
“For too long – he said - the Middle East has been a theatre of fratricidal wars, one born of the other, as if the only possible response to war and violence must be new wars and further acts of violence”; and he asked, “ How much longer must the Middle East suffer the consequences of this lack of peace?”
“We must not resign ourselves to ongoing conflicts as if the situation can never change for the better! With the help of God, we can and we must renew the courage of peace!”, he stated.
“Such courage will lead to a just, patient and determined use of all available means of negotiation, and in this way achieve the concrete goals of peace and sustainable development.”, he added.
He expressed his conviction that interreligious and intercultural dialogue “can make an important contribution” to reaching this “urgent goal”, so that there will be “an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism which gravely demean the dignity of every man and woman and exploit religion.”
The solidarity of all believes can play a crucial role here, he said, but it must rest on the following pillars: “respect for human life and for religious freedom, that is the freedom to worship and to live according to the moral teachings of one’s religion; commitment to ensuring what each person requires for a dignified life; and care for the natural environment.”
He underlined the fact that the peoples and the states of the Middle East “stand in urgent need of such solidarity, so that they can ‘reverse the trend’ and successfully advance a peace process, repudiating war and violence and pursuing dialogue, the rule of law, and justice.”
To underline that urgency he pointed to what is happening in Syria and Iraq today where “terrorist violence shows no signs of abating. Prisoners and entire ethnic populations are experiencing the violation of the most basic humanitarian laws. Grave persecutions have taken place in the past and still continue today to the detriment of minorities, especially – though not only – Christians and Yazidis. Hundreds of thousands of persons have been forced to abandon their homes and countries in order to survive and remain faithful to their beliefs”
He reminded his audience that it is necessary “to move forward patiently in the task of building a lasting peace, one founded on respect for the fundamental rights and duties rooted in the dignity of each person.” In this way, he said, “we can overcome prejudices and unwarranted fears, leaving room for respect, encounter, and the release of more positive energies for the good of all.”
And in words that have particular relevance for the minority religious groups in Turkey and elsewhere in the region, Pope Francis said, “ it is essential that all citizens – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties. They will then find it easier to see each other as brothers and sisters who are travelling the same path, seeking always to reject misunderstandings while promoting cooperation and concord religious beliefs.”
Speaking before the Pope at the Palace, President Erdogan said that in their hour-long conversation they had agreed “on almost every issue”, including fighting terrorism, violence, the dominance of money and what this gives rise to, prejudices in the Christian and Islamic worlds, rising hatred and Islamophobia in the West, and the identification of Islam or Muslims with terrorism. He slammed the ‘state terrorism’ in Syria and the violation of the rights of Muslims in Jerusalem. And he went on to express his view that terrorist organizations like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram have arisen also as a result of many years of wrong policies and double standards by the West, and indicated the need for a change of direction.
Pope Francis, for his part, speaking as leader of the Catholic Church, said he had come in the footsteps of his predecessors – John XXIII ( who was apostolic delegate here before becoming pope), Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI - “to pursue with you a dialogue of friendship, esteem and respect” . He emphasized the importance and need for “a dialogue which can deepen the understanding and appreciation of the many things we have in common”.
In his talk at the Palace and in a second speech, an hour later, at the Diyanet – the Government office for Religious Affairs, the Pope warmly praised Turkey for giving hospitality to a great many refugees, mostly from the war in Syria, but also many from the conflict in Iraq that began in 2003. Sources say that Turkey has given refuge to an estimate 1.5 million people, many of them in the 22 camps it has set up inside its borders, about an hour from Istanbul. “The international community has the moral obligation to help Turkey”, he stated, but it must also “not remain indifferent to the causes of these tragedies”
He reaffirmed what he had said on the plane returning from Korea, “that it is licit, while always respecting international law, to stop an unjust aggressor”, but he repeated, “the problem cannot be resolved solely through a military response”, there is need for “a concerted commitment on the part of all, based on mutual trust, which can pave the way to lasting peace.”
Speaking at the Diyanet, he highlighted the important contribution that Christian and Muslim religious leaders can make in helping overcome conflicts and working for peace. “Good relations and dialogue between religious leaders” are important for building solidarity because this sends a clear message to their respective communities “which demonstrates that mutual respect and friendship are possible, notwithstanding differences”. This is particularly important in a time of crises such as the world is experiencing now, he added.
“As religious leaders – Pope Francis said – we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights. Human life, a gift of God the Creator, possesses a sacred character. As such, any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace. “
He told his audience that the world “expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sister, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences”.
In addition to denouncing such violations, he said “we must also work together to find adequate solutions”. But this work “requires the cooperation of all: governments, political and religious leaders, representatives of civil society , and all men and women of good will”.
The President of the Diyanet, Dr Mehmet Gormez, stood at the Pope’s side as he spoke and it was clear that both men had connected at a spiritual level and found themselves in harmony on many questions.
Dr Gormez like President Erdogan is concerned about Islamophobia. He said “Islamophobic paranoia” is being used “as a pretext for massive pressures, intimidation, discrimination, alienation and actual attacks against our Muslim brothers and sisters living in the West”. It is clear from the words of both Turkish leaders that Islamophobia is a major issue in the Muslim world, an issue that they suggest is underestimated, if not ignored, in the West.
At the same time, Dr Gormez stated that “we all have to oppose in a concerted manner efforts that are being made to portray the conflicts for power and interests as religious wars.” Indeed, he said, “We should never allow religious and religious institutions to be exploited as tools of dirty politics”.
He, like the Pope, expressed the need for religious leaders to work together for peace, and to combat the evils of poverty, hunger and address the problem of migration and refugees.
It was significant that both President Erdogan and the President of the Diyanet in their talks appeared to speak not only for Muslims in Turkey but also for their coreligionists in Africa, Asia and Europe too. Indeed President Erdogan went out of his way to emphasize ‘the importance’ he attributed to Pope Francis’ visit here, which he said was not only “highly positive “ for Turkey but for much of the Islamic world.
For his part, Pope Francis appeared to have connected with his Muslim hosts and at the end of his talk at the Diyanet he departed from his written text and added, “I wish that inter-religious dialogue becomes creative in new ways”.