VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis leaves on Friday (Nov. 28) for a three-day visit to Turkey and, given the issues on his plate and the troubles in the neighborhood, it is expected to be his most challenging and potentially most dangerous trip yet.
There are so few Christians — around 120,000 — in this overwhelmingly Muslim country that he is leaving the armored popemobile at home. So why is he going at all? Here are three things the pope hopes to bring home from Turkey:
Francis has a close relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, who leads the world’s 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians from Istanbul.
The patriarch personally invited Francis to visit when they met after the pope’s election last year. The two met again on Francis’ trip to the Middle East last spring, and then for a prayer vigil with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at the Vatican in June.
Now the two leaders will cement their friendship in a country not always known for its religious tolerance. The two plan to mark one of the most important occasions on the Orthodox calendar, the Feast of St. Andrew. They will also sign a joint declaration on behalf of the two churches.
The 74-year-old Turkish-born patriarch and the 77-year-old Argentine pontiff come from opposite sides of the globe, but the two men have managed to form a strong personal bond and desire to build peace and religious freedom.
“It is worth noting that more progress has been made toward reconciliation of the two churches under the leadership of Bartholomew and Francis than has been made in nearly a millennium, and this progress comes at a critical moment,” said the Rev. Emmanuel Lemelson, a Greek Orthodox priest from suburban Boston, who will be part of the official Orthodox delegation during the papal visit.
“Christians are facing unprecedented persecution in our modern era, and a veritable attempt to eliminate their very existence just beyond the Turkish border.”
Francis sees the Turkish government as a model for political Islam and hopes to use the trip to present his personal vision for Catholic–Muslim relations in the 21st century.
Since he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis has had a reputation for building strong relations with other faiths, including Muslims. He sought to reinforce that image during his pontificate on his trip to the Middle East last May; his unscripted stop at the Israeli security barrier on the West Bank sent a powerful message of solidarity to Palestinians and Muslims.
Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has plenty of detractors, his government is on the frontline of the brutality caused by the self-declared Islamic State that stretches across parts of Syria and Iraq. His government has accepted around 1.3 million refugees from the ongoing violence, including many Christians, according to the latest United Nations figures.
Boston College theology professor James Morris, an expert in Islamic relations, said the pope has chosen Turkey to clarify his personal vision.
“What he’s highlighting is, it’s quite possible to have a majority Muslim country with a place where the Christians coexist and live under a common government,” Morris said. “We might think that’s very obvious, but for these nationalist groups that’s not obvious. So by going there, Francis brings attention to the plight of Christian minorities.”
MIDDLE EAST PEACE
Francis has spoken out repeatedly against the violent persecution faced by Christians fleeing the Islamic State and has even backed limited military intervention to stop the aggression. His preoccupation came through when he addressed European leaders on Tuesday.
“Communities and individuals today find themselves subjected to barbaric acts of violence,” he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “They are evicted from their homes and native lands, sold as slaves, killed, beheaded, crucified or burned alive, under the shameful and complicit silence of so many.”
There are likely to be more words from the pope on the brutality taking place in Turkey’s own backyard. But the big question is whether he will make a surprise visit to the refugee camps along the Turkey-Syria border or challenge the Islamic State more directly.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Francis said he left the door open to dialogue with the Islamic State, even as he remains skeptical.
“I never see anything as a lost cause, ever. Maybe it’s not possible to have dialogue. … But I never close any door. It is difficult, you could say almost impossible, but the door is always open.”
Veteran Vatican observer Sandro Magister challenged the pope to recognize the theological nature of the battle taking place, just as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did when he questioned the nature of Muslim doctrine in a volatile speech at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006.
“It is impossible not to see in this the features of a ‘war of Islam’ pushed to the extreme, fought in the name of Allah,” Magister wrote in his column for the magazine l’Espresso.
“It is illusory to deny the Islamic origin of this unbridled theological violence. On Islam, the Catholic Church stammers, the more so the higher up the ladder one goes.”