Pope Francis in Turkey to boost faith ties

May 25, 2014 Pope Francis stands with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as they meet outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem Image copyright AP
Image caption The Pope (left) is due to meet Patriarch Bartholomew I (right) during his visit

Pope Francis is in Turkey on a three-day trip aimed at promoting religious dialogue, only the fourth visit by a pope to the Muslim-majority nation.

In a speech in Ankara he said such a dialogue could "deepen the understanding and appreciation of the many things which we hold in common".

He also spoke about the Middle East, saying that "for too long [it has] been a theatre of fratricidal wars".

The Pope was speaking alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Pope's visit comes as Islamic State insurgents have captured swathes of neighbouring Iraq and Syria.

Turkey is now home to at least 1.6 million people from Syria, most of them living close to the border.

The Pope said: "Turkey, which has generously welcomed a great number of refugees, is directly affected by this tragic situation on its borders; the international community has the moral obligation to assist Turkey in taking care of these refugees."

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Media captionMark Lowen reports on the state of Christianity in Turkey

Mark Lowen, BBC News, Ankara

Islam was sidelined from the constitutionally secular Turkish republic founded in 1923. But as a nation state was formed here, the religion became part of Turkish national identity, something that has sharply accelerated under Mr Erdogan's leadership.

New mosques are flourishing, while the world-famous Halki Orthodox Christian theological school near Istanbul has remained closed since 1971 under Turkish nationalist pressure.

One of the remaining Greeks of Turkey, Fotis Benlisoy, says the community feels squeezed: "The threatening feeling for non-Muslim minorities here is coming again."

Anxious times for Turkey's Christians

In an interview on the eve of his visit, the Pope made his feelings on the Syrian conflict known, the BBC's Mark Lowen in Ankara notes.

The pontiff told an Israeli newspaper that the persecution of Christians in the region is "the worst" it has been since Christianity's earliest days.

Vatican officials say religious tolerance will be high on the agenda when the Pope meets President Erdogan - whose AK Party is rooted in political Islam - and Mehmet Gormez, Turkey's top cleric.

The Pope's first stop is Turkey's new presidential palace in Ankara, making him the first dignitary to visit the lavish 1,000-room building.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Pope is the first official guest at President Erdogan's new palace

According to Hurriyet newspaper, the Pope - who is renowned for his humble lifestyle - requested a "modest car" for his trip. He was picked up at the airport by a black Volkswagen saloon.

In Istanbul, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Istanbul's Sultan Ahmed mosque, the 17th-Century place of worship popularly known as the Blue Mosque.

He is also due to sign a joint declaration with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, on trying to bridge the divides between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.

Although most of Turkey's 80 million citizens are Muslims, there are about 120,000 Christians in the country - once the centre of the Orthodox Christian world.

Turkish media on Pope's visit

Turkish media seems most concerned with the security arrangements for the Pope's visit. Postauses the headline "Martial law" to describe heavy security in Ankara and Istanbul.

Other papers take a more neutral tone and talk about his agenda, with some anticipation about the Pope being the first visitor to the new "presidential palace". Hurriyet speculates that President Erdogan's message to the Pope might be: "Let's stop Islamophobia".

The independent news portal says the treatment of Christian minorities in the Middle East is likely to top the Pope's agenda.

One of the secular papers, Daily Cumhuriyet, quotes a senior Turkish religious official who takes issue with the Vatican's idea of inter-religious dialogue, saying: "The discourse of the Church should change".

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