Turkey’s President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan and Pope Francis talked together for around 50 minutes behind closed doors in the Vatican this morning, Feb. 5, about “the situation in the country” and “the situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law.”
The Holy See’s press office revealed this after the Turkish leader had left the Vatican, where he had discussions not only with the pope but also with his top advisors—Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state; and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the secretary for relations with states.
According to a statement released by the Holy See: “During the cordial discussions the bilateral relations between the Holy See and Turkey were evoked, and the parties spoke about the situation of the country, the condition of the Catholic community, efforts in the reception of the many refugees and the challenges linked to this. Attention then turned to the situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law.”
It is clear from the press communiqué that the president, the pope and the two senior Vatican officials covered a wide range of topics during his more than two-hour visit. They discussed “the situation” in Turkey. Though the statement does not elaborate, it seems reasonable to presume—based on what America learned before the visit—that this discussion would have included concerns over the erosion of civil and political liberties, the arrest of thousands of people and widespread violations of human rights in the crackdown that followed the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The pope and Vatican officials wanted to understand where the country is going and what it is going to look like in the future.
It seems reasonable to presume that the discussion would have included concerns over the erosion of civil and political liberties in Turkey.
According to the statement, their discussions also focused on the plight of an estimated 2.5 million displaced civilians that Turkey has given refuge to from the war in Syria and related challenges, which include the flow of migrants and refugees from Turkey to the European Union. The dire reality of the tiny Catholic community in this majority Muslim country of over 76 million people (68 percent Sunni; 30 percent Shiite) was likely discussed. There are some 140,000 Christians in Turkey, including 53,000 Catholics, divided among four rites: Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean.
The life for Christians in Turkey has not been easy in recent decades and especially under the increasing Islamization encouraged by President Erdoğan.
Before his visit, Mr. Erdoğan had said that “the status of Jerusalem” was at the top of his agenda for discussion with the pope, along with advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are issues on which they largely agree.
The Vatican statement makes clear that the question of Jerusalem was discussed within the wider framework of “the situation in the Middle East,” a diplomatic way of saying it included such issues as the need for a final peace agreement to end the war in Syria, the situation of the Kurds, now under attack from Turkey, and the plight of Christians in the Kurdish area, as well as the 70-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All four issues are of major concern to the Holy See, which knows that Turkey has a key role to play in all this. It is significant that the statement asserts that in their discussions the spotlight was thrown on “the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law.”
This was a very important meeting not just for the Turkish leader but also for Pope Francis and the Holy See. It all began shortly before 10 a.m. when the two leaders greeted each other in the small throne room in front of the entrance to the pope’s private library.
At the end of the meeting the two leaders appeared before the cameras relaxed and smiling and then, as is the normal practice, they exchanged gifts after Mr. Erdoğan presented his wife and 16-person delegation to the pope. The president gave the pope a ceramic picture representing a panorama of Istanbul with the main sites—the Bosporus, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The president also gave him four books, including two by the great 13th-century Persian mystic poet Rumi. Francis remarked, “Things mystical.”
Pope Francis, for his part, presented Mr. Erdoğan with a round medallion depicting an angel and explained, “This is the angel of peace that strangles the devil of war!”
Looking at the president, he added, “This gift is a symbol of a world based on peace and justice.” Francis also gave him a water painting of St. Peter’s Basilica and a copy of the encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
As they bid farewell, he asked the Muslim leader and his wife to “pray for me!” Mr. Erdoğan had the last word, however, and told the pontiff, “We also expect you to pray for us!”
The Turkish president was then escorted to the Secretariat of State for discussions with the top Vatican officials and afterward was given a guided visit to St. Peter’s Basilica before going to meet the president and prime minister of Italy in a city that was under lockdown in the face of anti-Erdoğan protests from Kurdish groups and human rights activists.
It was the second meeting between Francis and Mr. Erdoğan. They first met in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, during Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the country in 2014.
That first meeting was not an easy one because Mr. Erdoğan was profoundly upset at the pope’s intention to participate in the upcoming celebration of the centenary of the Armenian genocide—a term he strongly rejects. Mr. Erdoğan also raised his concern at the growing Islamophobia in Europe and elsewhere, as the pope revealed on the plane returning to Rome.
Not long after, however, their relations plummeted as Francis participated in the Armenian commemoration, and Turkish leaders harshly criticized him. Mr. Erdoğan withdrew his ambassador to the Holy See for a long period but eventually reinstated him.
In the period in between their two meetings, the Turkish leader squashed a weak attempt at a coup and has imprisoned thousands of opponents.
In the period in between their two meetings, the Turkish leader squashed a weak attempt at a coup against him July 2016, and since then he has imprisoned thousands of opponents linked to Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader living in exile in the United States, whom he blamed for the attempt to overthrow him. The many imprisoned include individuals from the country’s military, police and civil administration, as well as the education system, the media and human rights activists, including a director of Amnesty International. Mr. Erdoğan has ordered an ongoing crackdown on civil and political liberties in which he has branded his opponents as terrorists.
Even as he suppresses civil liberties in Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan has emerged as a leader in the Islamic work, an essential player in containing the flow of migrants to Europe and in the quest for peace in Syria—though he is complicating the latter effort by his attempt to crush with military force the Kurdish people’s quest for autonomy. All of these actions have blocked his country’s bid for membership of the European Union.
His decision to request a meeting with Pope Francis and ally himself with the pontiff on the question of the status of Jerusalem and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important one in its own right, but it is also accompanied by his determined effort to break out of the diplomatic isolation that followed his brutal crackdown in Turkey and reopen links with the European Union.
On Feb. 4, the eve his visit to the Vatican, Mr. Erdoğan, in an interview with the Italian daily, La Stampa, revealed that “the status of Jerusalem” was top of his agenda for discussion with the pope. He recalled that he and Francis had spoken about this by phone on Dec. 7, “after President Donald Trump’s declaration, contrary to international law.”
The Turkish leader, who initiated the call, thanked the pope for that conversation and said, “Following that, Pope Francis lost no time and sent a right message to the Christian world. Because Jerusalem is not only a question of Muslims, we are both for the defense of the status quo and we have the will to safeguard it.” They also spoke together by phone on Dec. 29, again the call was initiated from Ankara.
In the interview, he emphasized that “no nation has the right to adopt unilateral steps and ignore international law on a question that is of interest to millions of people.”
For this reason, he added, “The UN General Assembly, on 21 December 2017, declared the U.S. decision illegal.” He rejoiced that Italy had voted in favor of the resolution and that only Israel and five or six other countries stood with the United States.
He insisted that “the status of the city must be preserved on basis of the UN resolution, guaranteeing to Muslims, Christians and Jews to live in peace, side by side” and said, “The international community must assume responsibility to ensure [guarantee] peace to Jerusalem.” He emphasized that’s “it’s absolutely important to maintain the status [quo], to safeguard the holy places of all the three religions and to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people” and added, “it’s fundamental that the pope, as well as the different Christian communities in Jerusalem, send messages in this sense.” Moreover, he said, “if a peace between Israelis and Palestinians is truly desired, the only way is the solution of the two states that recognizes Palestine:”
While four popes have visited Turkey over the past 60 years—Paul VI (1967), John Paul II (1979), Benedict XVI (2006) and Francis (2014)—this was only the second visit by a Turkish president to the Vatican since Celal Bayar visited Pope John XXIII on June 11, 1959. Pope John XXIII had very good relations with the Turks from his days as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece (1935-44), and shortly after the president’s visit, Turkey and the Holy See established full diplomatic relations on Jan. 25, 1960, though the Holy See and Turkey have had relations for a very long time throughout history.