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Pope Seeks to Bridge Faiths With Turkey Visit

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Friday, 28 Nov 2014 10:31 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Papal gestures pointing to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence are likely to be the most memorable aspects of Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Turkey which begins today.

The intense and highly sensitive trip, coming eight years after Benedict XVI visited the country just after his controversial Regensburg lecture, will be dominated by major concerns in the region such as persecuted Christians and regional conflicts. Catholic-Muslim dialogue, improving ties with the Orthodox Church, and Holy See-Turkey relations, will also be important elements of the trip.

Invited by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I for the feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30, Francis will be the fourth pontiff to visit the Muslim-majority country which has deep historical significance for Christians.

“He comes at a very important moment with respect to the developing situation in Middle East, and at a time when Turkey’s profile and role with respect to ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is coming close to a turning point,” a senior diplomatic source in Rome told me.

Turkey has been criticized for backing Islamists again the Assad regime in a conflict that has so far cost 191,000 lives.

He added that the exchange of perspectives between the Turkish authorities and the Pope “will also be significant,” and that for the church itself, “there will obviously be the hope that Christian-Turkish relations will be improved by his presence.”

The persecution of Christians in the region will be central to discussions, and it’s likely the issue of reciprocity will be raised: that religious freedoms granted to Muslims in the West should be reciprocated by Muslim-majority states for religious minorities.

If the issue is mentioned, many are hopeful it will get a fair hearing. “What is happening in Iraq may have changed the attitude of the Muslims who see now that both Christian and Muslim have a common enemy,” said professor Francesco Zannini who lectures at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome. “This may help them understand that denying the minority rights is not a matter that harms only the Middle East Christian Communities. In that sense I think they will welcome such a message.”

During his trip to Strasbourg this week, Pope Francis said one should “never close the door” to dialogue, even with Islamist militants. Zannini said that in his “long experience of dialogue with Islamists, particularly in Asia, but also in other countries” he personally believes “this is possible.” But he said the term “Islamist” is “too large and covers several radical groups which must be considered separately.”

He said, “In the path of dialogue, faith, understanding, empathy, and endurance are very important qualities and I think Pope Francis has all these qualities."

"Besides that,” he added, Francis has said “he will never give up, because he does not consider anything lost.”

Mustafa Cenap Aydin, Turkish director of Istituto Tevere, an Islamic centre for dialogue, sees the Pope as reaching out to those who have been brainwashed into joining militant groups. The Pope’s comments “should be interpreted as reaching out to those who could come back,” he said. Aydin believes the Pope’s visit will be a “great success,” offering a chance for Turkey to improve its public image and for the Holy See to better its perception among the Turkish people.

Still, security concerns over the visit are high: One Rome diplomatic source told me there is great concern that a terrorist will try to attack the Pope, and these fears are “overshadowing” where the focus should be: on engaging important international issues in the Middle East and the Islamist threat to the region.

But the Vatican has reassured that security will be tight and, as usual, decided by the local authorities. Others are also playing down the concerns. Aydin dismissed the fears and believes prayer is the answer: He is organizing a prayer meeting Nov. 27 with Muslims, Catholics and Vatican officials in a church in Rome to pray for the Pope and the apostolic visit.

The Nov. 28-30 apostolic trip begins in the capital Ankara where, after arriving at 1 p.m., the Pope will visit the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president and founder of the modern republic.

He will then transfer to the presidential palace, a controversial new complex of 1,000 rooms built at a cost of $615 million. There he will be received by the president of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and other civic leaders. The Turkish authorities say Erdoğan is scheduled to welcome the Pope as a head of state with an "A-class" ceremony.

After a subsequent meeting with the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Pope will visit the president of Religious Affairs, Mehmet Görmez. The official was recently critical of Francis’ gestures towards Muslims, saying such actions as washing the feet of a Muslim female prisoner (which Francis did in 2013) and an interreligious soccer match played in Rome in September at Francis’ request, are not dialogue.

On Saturday, the Holy Father will be flown to Istanbul where he will visit the Hagia Sophia Museum, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, and the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, where he will celebrate Mass. Later, in the patriarchal Church of St. George, there will be an ecumenical prayer and a private meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew.

Given Francis’ concerns over immigration and refugees, observers are surprised that a pastoral visit to the many displaced people in the region is not in the program, although the Vatican says he is expected to meet some refugees in Istanbul on Saturday.

On Sunday, the final day, after a private Mass, the Pope will give an ecumenical blessing and sign a joint declaration between the Pope and the patriarch. He is expected to arrive back in Rome in the early evening.


Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
 

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Papal gestures pointing to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence are likely to be the most memorable aspects of Pope Francis’ three-day visit to Turkey which begins today.
pope, faith, catholic, muslims
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2014-31-28
Friday, 28 Nov 2014 10:31 AM
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