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Pope Francis turns focus on Turkey

05 December 2014


Heavenward: Pope Francis listens to the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, at Sultan Ahmet mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, on Saturday

Heavenward: Pope Francis listens to the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, at Sultan Ahmet mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbu...

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 person."

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 peace".

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."

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