Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Turkey (November 28-30) was intended primarily as an ecumenical visit to the center of the Orthodox world, with an important Muslim-Christian dimension. It has taken on considerable political significance, however, because of the dramatic situation in the region with ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the fierce onslaught of the fundamentalist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Hundreds of thousands have been killed in these conflicts in recent years (over 190,000 in Syria since the spring of 2011, and an estimated 500,000 in Iraq since 2003), countless thousands have been injured, millions have been displaced from their homes; many forced to become refugees. Turkey has given refuge to some 1 million Syrians, and become ever more involved in the conflict in Syria.
It is Francis’ sixth foreign visit and his third to a majority Muslim state in the region, after Jordan and Palestine, where Christians are a tiny minority in all three states. He is the fourth pope to come here: Paul VI visited in 1967, John Paul II in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2006.
In many ways his visit mirrors that of his German predecessor, except that he does not go to Ephesus, but the international context is totally different given the abovementioned conflicts and the political destabilization of the region. As a result of this he is likely not only to focus on the Christian-Muslim dimension and Catholic-Orthodox relations, but also on the conflicts, the situations of refugees and the urgent need to restore peace to the war-torn Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq.
On the morning of November 28, the first Latin American pope, accompanied by 64 journalists from many countries, including America’s correspondent, will fly from Rome to Ankara, the capital of this country of over 76 million people (85.7 percent are Turks, 11 percent Kurds, 1.5 percent Arabs), almost all Muslim (68 percent Sunni, 30 percent Shiite). Turkey’s Christians count for a tiny minority of some 140,000, including 53,000 Catholics who are divided into four rites: Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean.
Pope Francis will spend his first day in Ankara, a city of 4.4 million people and seat of Turkey’s government and parliament. After a brief welcome at the airport he will travel by car to the city and stop – as all official visitors have to do – to pay his respects to the father of the nation – Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ (1181-1938), at the Mausoleum of Ataturk. From there he will drive to the new extravagant Presidential Palace (‘the White Palace’), where he will be given an official welcome by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the political strong man here, who was Turkey’s Prime Minister from 2003-14. At the palace, Francis will address the political authorities and meet the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Later that afternoon he will deliver an important talk to Islamic leaders at the ‘Diyanet’ (the government department for religious affairs), on Christian-Muslim relations.
The following day, November 29, he will travel to Istanbul, the country’s economic capital and largest city, with a population of over 13 million people. It was once known as Constantinople because the Roman Emperor Constantine, after granting religious freedom to Christians in 313, moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the small Greek city of Byzantium in 330 and renamed it Constantinople or New Rome.
On arrival in this enchanting city that bridges Asia and Europe, Pope Francis will visit the breathtakingly beautiful Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder originally built on the site of pagan temples in 360, twice destroyed by fire, which was from 537 was the most important Christian church in the Byzantine Empire. It was transformed into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but since 1935 this awesome building, which still retains much of its ancient mystique, has become a museum of the Turkish Republic. After visiting here, the pope will visit the magnificent Sultan Ahmet Mosque built in the early 1600s (known as ‘The Blue Mosque’ because of the blue tiles adorning its interior walls).
The rest of the Argentine pope’s stay in Istanbul will be devoted to Christian celebrations in this land which was once ‘the cradle of Christianity’, where in Antioch (modern day Antakya) the followers of Jesus were first called ‘Christians’. St Paul was born in Tarsus, in south-central Turkey, around 5 A.D., preached in Antioch, founded the church in Ephesus (where according to an early Christian tradition Mary, the Mother of Jesus, spent the last years of her life on earth), and left an indelible mark on the development of Christianity by his missionary work throughout Asia Minor and by his Letters to the Christian communities in Galatia (the area around Ankara), Ephesus and Colossus (present day Honaz).
Pope Francis’ primary purpose in coming to Turkey is to advance the cause of unity among Christians by helping heal the wounds caused by the almost thousand-year separation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Reconciliation with the Orthodox is a top priority of his pontificate, and the extraordinarily good personal relationship that he has developed with Patriarch Bartholomew is certainly contributing to this.
The Pope, who will be 78 in December, begins this important phase of his visit with an inter-ritual mass in the cathedral of the Holy Spirit for the city’s small Catholic community on the afternoon of November 29, at which Patriarch Bartholomew 1 – the first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy, will be present. They met last May in Jerusalem, and the following month at the prayer meeting for peace in the Holy Land held in the Vatican.
The Pope will drive by car from the Catholic cathedral to the ‘Phanar’, since 1600, has been the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church that counts 300 million members in different churches worldwide. On arrival there, Francis will participate in an ecumenical prayer service in the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George, and afterwards have a private meeting with the Patriarch.
On November 30, the feast of Saint Andrew, Pope Francis will assist at the Divine Liturgy in the cathedral of St George, and afterwards he and the Patriarch will both speak. The Pope will deliver an important talk on the Catholic Church’s relations with the Orthodox, and afterwards will sign a joint declaration with the Patriarch. The two church leaders will then have lunch together at the Phanar.
The last event on the pope’s agenda in Turkey involves a meeting with those on the ‘periphery’ - some fifty or more young people, mainly refugees from conflicts in countries of the Middle East and Africa, who are students at an oratory run by the Salesian community. He had hoped to meet other refugees too, but at the time of writing it is not clear if he will. After meeting with them he will take the plane back to the Rome.