POPE FRANCIS used the opportunity of his recent visit to Turkey
to address some of the challenges faced by Christians in the Middle
East. He helped to ease the sense of isolation that Christians in
the region feel by consolidating his relationship with the Orthodox
Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I.
He joined the Patriarch in condemning the persecution of
Christians in the region, and he urged Muslims to denounce
terrorism carried out in the name of Islam.
In choosing to visit Turkey, the Pope helped to focus world
attention on Christians' precarious minority status: the Turkish
Christian community today has shrunk to about 80,000 people - one
per cent of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
During a joint ecumenical service on Saturday, in the
Patriarchal Church of St George, in Istanbul, Pope Francis bowed
before the Patriarch and asked for his blessing, a gesture of
humility thought to be unprecedent.
The two men signed a joint declaration that focused on the
plight of Christians in the Middle East, expressing concern in
particular for Iraq and Syria. They called on "all those who bear
responsibility for the destiny of peoples to deepen their
commitment to suffering communities, and to enable them, including
the Christian ones, to remain in their native land," and said: "We
cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians."
The statement said that because many Christians were being
persecuted, "it even seems that the value of human life has been
lost; that the human person no longer matters, and may be
sacrificed to other interests."
Citing St Paul's letter to the Corinthians ("If one member
suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all
rejoice together"), the two churchmen suggested that there was an
"ecumenism of suffering. Just as the blood of the martyrs was a
seed of strength and fertility for the Church, so, too, the sharing
of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity.
The terrible situation of Christians . . . calls not only for our
constant prayer, but also for an appropriate response on the part
of the international community."
The joint statement went on to call for "constructive dialogue
with Islam, based on mutual respect and friendship. Inspired by
common values, and strengthened by genuine fraternal sentiments,
Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of
justice, peace, and respect for the dignity and rights of every
The Pope's visit to Turkey included a formal welcome by
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at his new palace. The President of
state condemned what he described as the "serious and rapid rise of
Islamophobia and racism", and said that groups such as the Islamic
State and Boko Haram were able to gain support because of the
West's failed international policies.
Speaking to reporters on the flight back from Turkey, Pope
Francis said that he recognised the harm caused by equating Islam
with terrorism, and condemned this generalisation. But, he said,
some of the responsibility for counteracting radical Islam lay with
Muslim leaders themselves. He had told President Erdoğan that
Muslim leaders must clearly condemn all terrorist violence, which
had nothing to do with the Qur'an, which he called "a book of
While Middle Eastern Christians will undoubtedly have gained
spiritual strength from the Pope's visit to Turkey, there is no
indication that the coming months will signal an improvement in
their daily lives.
The Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, the Most Revd Samir Nassar,
in an Advent message, has written of the isolation felt by his
community: "The roads that lead to Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey are
closed because of the fighting. The only escape that was open,
until last October, was the road to Lebanon.
"Lebanon, a small country saturated by a million and a half
Syrian refugees, began to close its borders with Syria, allowing
only emergency cases."
Archbishop Nassar said that Syrian Christians "feel isolated,
condemned to live in danger . . . cut off from their relatives and
friends already living in Lebanon. This loneliness adds to the
anguish, the bitter cold winter experience, the sad tenor and
feeling of neglect."