Setting off for his second international tour this week, Pope Francis is hoping to bridge a religious gap in Turkey where he will be visiting the main Turkish cities of Ankara, the capital and Istanbul. Earlier he had paid a visit to Strasbourg for meetings with European Parliament and Council of Europe.
He is visiting Turkey on the invitation of government as well as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.. Turkey has one of the world’s most ancient civilizations going back to Holy Roman Catholic Church and the last capital of Islam.
Turkey is a pluralist society and a modern Muslim-majority country, but officially a secular state with some 75 million Muslims and around 80,000 Christians which is less than one percent of whole population. Its small Christian community consists of Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Franco-Levantines, Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean.
The visit has been predicted as a crucial test of Pope Francis’ capabilities to bridge the gap between religious faiths, especially amid the ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and concerns over persecution of Christian minorities in the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received Pope Francis as the first foreign dignitary to his new presidential palace outside Ankara. Francis is the fourth pope to travel to Turkey after Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The agenda of the visit apparently is targeted at bringing change and progress between Christians and Muslims not only in the region but at global level. Christians in Turkey and Middle East seem to be lacking a judicial statues and official rights. The issue has not been brought to mainstream level due to other problems of the region, especially on the Iraqi border which takes most attention of Turkish government.
Christian community in the region is waiting for reforms on the official level where their institutions will be supported and renewal of deep Christian faith is brought about at practical and government level. During his meeting with Erodgan, Pope spoke of his concerns about Syria and Iraq conflicts and incidents of terrorism in the region. He stressed the importance of mutual dialogue on inter-religious and inter-cultural issues which can bring an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism.
He also added that in Muslim majority country where Christians are in very small minority, they should share same rights and respect same duties and live with full religious freedom in the lands of the prophets. He emphasized that although Christians are in minority in Turkey yet they form a diverse group of inter-Christian faith.
The issues of “Islamophobia” were also discussed between the Pope and Erodgan as he emphasized the importance of working together to eradicate intolerance, racism and discrimination weighing on many parts of the globe. Europe who has been on front line in religious intolerance and persecution. Working together with Turkey and its pluralist form of Islam, this discrimination can be minimized. The model of Islam practiced in Turkey is in majority compatible with European values and system.
The visit has been seen as being somewhat controversial and not many well-wishers were seen on roads when Pope arrived. But the Christian and Muslim communities in the region as well as around the world do look at it as Pope’s efforts of bridging the religious gap and an important landmark in the history.
By Atika Jilani