VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Almost every papal trip abroad is a complex mix of the religious and political, and that will be especially true of Pope Francis’ Nov. 28-30 visit to Turkey.
Given the country’s crucial geographic position straddling Europe and Asia, its historic importance for both Christianity and Islam and the wars now raging in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Pope Francis will have to address a variety of urgent topics during his three-day visit. Here are five of the biggest issues that await him:
• ECUMENISM. Like his predecessors Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis will visit Turkey Nov. 30, the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in what is today Istanbul. His primary reason for visiting will be to strengthen ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, considered first among equals by Orthodox bishops.
Pope Francis already has a strong relationship with the Patriarch Bartholomew, having met with him several times at the Vatican and in Jerusalem. Yet this meeting could have special value, not only because of its location but because it will come a little more than a month after a stressful incident in the Vatican’s relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s more than 225 million Orthodox Christians.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who serves as a kind of foreign minister for the Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow, attended the October Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican, where he used some of his floor time to complain about the position of Eastern Catholic leaders on the war in Eastern Ukraine, highlighting long-standing and persistent tensions between Catholicism and Orthodoxy along one of their major frontiers.
• CATHOLIC-MUSLIM DIALOGUE. Pope Francis has used dramatic words and gestures to show his desire for closer relations with the Islamic world. He has written that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence” and invited both Muslim and Jewish religious leaders to pray for peace in the Vatican Gardens. In April, 2013, a few weeks after becoming pope, he famously washed the feet of two Muslims during a Holy Thursday liturgy at a juvenile detention center in Rome.
Turkey will be the fourth Muslim-majority land, and by far the largest, that Pope Francis has visited since becoming pope.
• MUSLIMS IN EUROPE. Pope Francis will meet Nov. 28 with Mehmet Gormez, head of Turkey’s Presidency for Religious Affairs, called the Diyanet, which oversees Muslim worship and education in the country. In September, Gormez complained that the pope had not done enough to combat “violence and discrimination” against Muslims in the West, exemplified by a rising number of attacks on mosques in Germany.
In his meeting with Gormez, Pope Francis is likely to repeat his frequent call for European nations to welcome their rising number of immigrants, many of whom are Muslim.
• CHRISTIANS IN TURKEY. The papal visit will be a natural occasion for leaders of Turkey’s minuscule Christian population – much less than 1 percent of a total of 76 million – to repeat longstanding grievances over official and social discrimination. Patriarch Bartholomew has long demanded the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary closed by the government in 1971.
Observers say official treatment of Christians has improved since the Justice and Development Party, originally of Islamic inspiration, took power in 2002. The government points to a 2011 decree returning state-confiscated property to various non-Muslim religious communities as an example of increased tolerance. To encourage the spirit of such moves, Pope Francis could recall the five-century tradition of multiculturalism under the Ottoman Empire, a heritage that Turkish leaders today increasingly recall with pride.
• SYRIA AND IRAQ. Pope Francis is almost certain to repeat earlier calls for the protection of Christians and other minorities in the war-torn countries of Syria and Iraq, both of which border Turkey.
Though it has condemned acts of terrorism, Turkey has proven a somewhat ambivalent member of the anti-Islamic State coalition, among other reasons, because of the Turkish government’s opposition to Kurdish nationalists and the Syrian Bashar Assad regime, both of which are fighting the Islamic State.