The significance of Pope Francis visiting Turkey

By Harry Hagopian
November 29, 2014

Two things that are somewhat amusing (but nevertheless instructive) in hindsight happened to me recently.

The first one occurred as I was watching a satellite news channel where the anchor was clearly struggling with the item about the visit by Pope Francis to Turkey. He referred for instance to a meeting between the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch by mispronouncing the title of the patriarch in Arabic and hilariously ended up meaning a penguin instead of a church leader! He then went on to massacre the words that denote Orthodoxy as well as the name of the patriarch himself.

Later in the day, another channel contacted me for an interview. Instead of focusing on the objectives of this papal visit or on the plight of refugees, the interviewer was far more interested in highlighting the persecution of Christians in Turkey, the population exchanges betwixt Greeks and Turks post-1923 and the claims that the country was catalysing terrorism!

What is my point? It is simply that those two channels clearly had little substantive clues about the portent of this visit. One could not even recognise a major Christian faith that has many indigenous followers in the MENA region whilst the other was eager to highlight Christian suffering at the hands of Muslims. If this is how some newsy people - perhaps also a large number of viewers - react to this story, is it any wonder that the two religions or cultures do not communicate well despite the unending dialogues between hierarchs and the customary handshakes, smiles and appropriate platitudes?

Welcome to Pope Francis who undertook a fourth papal visit to Turkey amidst much ignorance or misunderstanding. In my opinion, the present leader of the Catholic Church travelled to Ankara and Istanbul with three overarching objectives.

The first was to show public solidarity with the Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the whole region - some 1.6 million of them are in Turkey alone - and not least those Iraqi Christian refugees who fled their homes in northern Iraq as a result of a rapacious group of men who are fantasising dangerously about restoring a Muslim caliphate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The second interlinked objective is to try and strengthen Christian-Muslim dialogue in order to overcome some elements of mutual suspicion, fear or even obscurantism and to encourage Muslim leaders to speak out more openly - vocally - against the excesses being perpetrated against indigenous Christians by ISIS or other groups in various MENA countries.

Finally, and as a cornerstone of this papacy, the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul is part of those attempts to heal the schisms since 1054 that have bedevilled relations between two key components of Christianity. After all, is it not time to heal the wounds and debunk the myths that keep Christians apart from each other? The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I articulated it so centrally when he said that “The challenges presented to our Churches by today’s historical circumstances oblige us to transcend our introversion.”

It is in this context that Pope Francis visited the beautiful Sultan Ahmet / Blue Mosque as well as the now reconverted Hagia Sofia Museum that until 1453 stood for almost one millennium as an important Orthodox cathedral at the religious heart of a largely Christian Byzantine empire with its capital of Constantinople.

It is also for this purpose that he had meetings with President Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an of Turkey as well as the Grand Mufti of Istanbul Rahmi Yaram let alone a symbolic number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. In all those encounters, the message to a country of 80 million (that was 20% Christian a century ago and is now one of the most mono-Muslim countries, with other faiths no more than 0.2% of the population) is that refugees are not on their own and that Muslims and Christians should talk more and bicker less.

Will this latest initiative bear fruit? Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel, published in 2013, expresses clearly his interest in a deeper understanding of Islam and his unequivocal position against lumping all of Islam together with extremism and violence. This is why he has called for an interfaith dialogue to counter fanaticism and fundamentalism. He stressed at the new presidential palace in Ankara that, “Religious freedom [...] will stimulate the flourishing of friendship and will become a significant sign of peace”.

Mind you, I remain unsure that hopeful words alone will either clothe refugees or keep them warm and safe. Nor will they overcome all the divergences within Christianity let alone in Christian-Muslim relations that are still fraught with caution and uncertainty. But ‘ecumenism’ for me as an Armenian believer is not one that strives to impose unity through uniformity. Rather, it celebrates unity in its rich diversity and that reaches out to the other. The Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut is a living institutional testimony to this hopeful outcome.

So was the satellite channel not too far off the truth, I ask myself today as Pope Francis get ready to fly back to the Vatican? After all, many Muslims remain ignorant of Christian realities. No wonder even the ethnocentric anxieties popularised by one adage that ‘the only friend a Turk has is another Turk’.

But the same could also be said of my subsequent interview where the presenter was simply underlining a tendency (consolidated alas by the ISIS heinous crimes and subsequent polarisation) that the two religions have starkly different understandings of culture and nationalism. No wonder some believe that Christianity is willy-nilly disappearing in the tapestry of a Muslim country.

Or is it? Does hope not spring eternal? And is it not a key component of our Christian faith alongside love and charity?

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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