Pope Francis and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan walk in front of honor guard at the presidential palace in Ankara, November 28
Pope Francis and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan walk in front of honor guard at the presidential palace in Ankara, November 28, 2014.
Tony Gentile / Courtesy Reuters

In the last few days of November, Pope Francis will use a visit to Turkey to advance two goals: winning greater protection for Christians in the Middle East and drawing the Catholic and Orthodox Churches closer together. Neither is new; Pope Benedict XVI was in Istanbul eight years ago with a similar agenda and near identical itinerary. But the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine have make Francis’ mission more urgent than ever.


Turkey has never had a large Catholic population, but the country looms large in Church history. Catholics believe that Jesus’ mother, Mary, died in Ephesus (Selçuk today). Turkey is also the birthplace of St. Paul, whose missionary journeys in Asia Minor and subsequent letters to new Christian communities comprise several New Testament books. Further, the Book of Revelation was composed on the Aegean island of Patmos, off the Turkish coast. Turkey is also one of the Vatican’s oldest formal bilateral relationships: The Vatican and Turkey established diplomatic relations in 1868, more than 100 years before the United Kingdom (1982), the United States (1984), and Mexico (1992). 

The relationship hasn’t always been easy. When he took power in Turkey in the early 1920s, Kemal Ataturk created a radically anti-religious regime. The state confiscated church property, banned religious garb, prohibited the public display of religious symbols, and made Muslim imams public employees. Even so, the Catholic archbishop, Angelo Roncalli, dutifully represented the Vatican in Turkey between 1934 and 1944, and his humility and respect for Turkish culture made him a popular, effective diplomat.

He spoke fluent Turkish, allowed Turkish to be used in Church ceremonies and documents, and openly admired Muslim devotion to prayer. He reached out to the Orthodox Church when a massive population exchange sent more than one million Greeks, many of whom had been living in Turkey for centuries, to Greece. During World War II, Roncalli used his position to help Jews fleeing Hitler get to Palestine through Turkey.

Roncalli brought the skills he exhibited in Turkey to Rome in 1958, when he became Pope John XXIII. To this day, he is called “Papa Turca” in Turkey. It is in the tolerant, open-hearted spirit of John XXIII, canonized earlier this year at Francis’ insistence, that the current pontiff must reach out to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week. 


Despite calls from Turkish architects and environmentalists to avoid visiting Erdogan in his controversial new palace built for over half a billion dollars in a protected forest, Francis has agreed to be the first head of state to be received at the “White Palace.”

Although it might seem incongruous for the notoriously frugal pontiff to be seen in Erdogan’s ostentatious palace, the Vatican doesn’t consider the president’s style choices relevant to this mission. Nor will the pope heed some commentators’ advice to talk about anti-Christian prejudice and violence in the country, which many believe some Turkish officials are stoking, and which has resulted in several high-profile murders over the last eight years—including the beheading of a beloved bishop by his driver. Two years ago, Erdoğan Bayraktar, the minister of environment and urbanism, declared that “Christianity is no longer a religion” but a culture, suggesting that it deserves neither respect nor institutional recognition.

Instead, the pope will emphasize points of agreement with Erdogan. Following Catholic catechism, Francis emphasizes shared Christian and Muslim belief in one God. Islam considers Jesus to be a prophet, born to a virgin, and Mary is the most frequently mentioned woman in the Koran. Francis will visit Mary’s House in Selçuk, a popular Muslim shrine and Catholic pilgrimage site, thus highlighting common elements between the two faiths.

Francis will also focus on the two leaders’ common enemy: Islamic fundamentalism. Most of the victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have been Muslim. But the group has also systematically targeted Christian communities. In Mosul last summer, ISIS marked Christian houses and ordered residents to convert, leave the city, pay a tax, or die. In Aleppo, meanwhile, two high-ranking Orthodox bishops were kidnapped in April 2013 and have never been found. 

Among other tragedies, the murder of Frans van der Lugt, a beloved Dutch-born Jesuit who refused to leave his church in Homs, was particularly devastating. As the conflict wore on, he sent video messages to Western colleagues documenting the starvation and isolation of his neighbors in Homs, under constant bombardment. The priest stayed on, even when only 24 Christians remained. On the day that a ceasefire he helped negotiate was supposed to be signed, a masked gunman shot him in the face in the garden of his monastery. 

Of course, what’s most urgent for Christians when it comes to Turkey is the refugee situation. Of the estimated 13.6 million people displaced by conflict in Iraq and Syria, some 1.1 million are Iraqi Christians and at least 500,000 are Syrian Christians. Turkey has received approximately 1.6 million refugees, providing shelter, food, and medical care for about 1.1 million of them in over 20 refugee centers.

To make progress in each of these areas, Francis will appeal to Erdogan as Ataturk’s more pious successor. Francis will urge Erdogan to reject violence done in Allah’s name against innocents. He may also put forward a plan proposed by lay Catholic leader Andrea Riccardi to save Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, now under siege. Aleppo has important religious sites and a significant Christian population. Riccardi envisions creating humanitarian corridors to Aleppo to allow in supplies to civilians and a UN peacekeeping force. To date, the proposal has attracted support from a wide range of international figures including Muslim leaders from Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and France. Erdogan’s support of the plan could turn it into a reality.


The pope’s second assignment while in Turkey is easier because it is more straightforward: publicly demonstrating his respect and affection for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as part of an ongoing, 50-year dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, which comprised one church until 1054’s Great Schism. The pope also aims to boost the standing of the beleaguered patriarch in the face of a dismissive Turkish government and an often overbearing institutional daughter, the Russian Orthodox Church.

Francis’ visit is timed to the November 30 Feast of St. Andrew, the apostle who founded the Christian Church in the East. St. Andrew was the biological brother of St. Peter, who founded the Catholic Church in the West. There’s no dispute between the two churches regarding apostolic lineage or the validity of their respective sacraments; the two differ mainly in form, not doctrine—except for the main stumbling block, Catholic doctrine on papal primacy.

The Orthodox Church is less hierarchical than the Catholic Church: It is comprised of 17 self-governing entities with distinct geographical jurisdictions, unified by theology and worship. Another five churches in the Orthodox communion are considered autonomous members by some, but not recognized by all. 

The heads of each Orthodox Church are considered equal, although the Ecumenical Patriarch, as the original leader, has historically been considered the “first among equals” and has several unique roles: responsibility for calling inter-Orthodox synods, participating in inter-faith discussions, and governing parishes not included in existing Orthodox Church structures.

But Turkish pressure on Bartholomew’s Church has diminished its international prestige. For one, the Turkish government does not recognize the Patriarch’s global role, preferring to see him as a local bishop with a tiny, and shrinking, flock of some 20,000 Greek Orthodox nationwide—just .03 percent of the population. Even worse, the Turkish government closed the Orthodox Church’s only seminary in 1971, thus denying it the ability to produce new leaders (by Turkish law, the patriarch is required to be a Turkish citizen). Despite lobbying and pressure from scores of international and national leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, the Holy Theological School of Halki remains a beautifully preserved conference and religious center with a unique biblical garden. 

The pressure on Bartholomew within Turkey is bad enough, but Russia might present an even bigger problem. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest patriarchate, and it has experienced a surge in membership and national status since the fall of Communism. At first, the Vatican was happy to improve ties with a resurgent Russian Orthodox Church. But over the last year, ecumenical progress has been threatened by the crisis in Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church blames the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), centered in Western Ukraine, for fomenting war and creating an alliance with “schismatic” elements of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. In the Russian church’s view, the UGCC, together with two Orthodox Church entities seeking independence from Moscow—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate (UOC–KP) and the smaller self-declared autocephalous Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC)—“wish to tear away the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine from their Mother Church, the Moscow Patriarchate, with which Ukraine has been bound by age-old blood ties.” 

Francis is thus in an awkward situation, which if exacerbated, tensions between the church’s branches could blow up. Currently, the level of misunderstanding between the pro-Western side (UGCC and UOC–KP) and the Russian Orthodox Church—is worrisome. Francis still sees Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, as a potential mediator in what could become a civil war, especially if the domestic religious groups dig in or intensify their faceoff. Bartholomew is considered wise and good, a Holy Man who enjoys being called the “Green Patriarch” for his dedication to the environment. But Francis might be mistaken if he believes that, after 2014, peacemakers in Ukraine are still blessed.

As Bartholomew’s advisors have pointed out, even he is impatient with the Russian Orthodox Church because it tends to be heavy handed and dismissive of his role and value, not unlike the Turkish government. Perhaps that is why Bartholomew came very close to recognizing the autonomy of the UOC–KP in 2008 at the request of its leader, Patriarch Filaret, age 85. At the last minute, recognition was called off because Filaret (who is a former bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church) changed the terms of the agreement. A bishop close to the Patriarch told me that “recent developments in Ukraine facilitate the possibility for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to intervene and recognize Patriarch Filaret or his successor.” Such a move would further polarize Ukraine along religious lines.

In other words, Francis might face a harder task in Turkey than his predecessors. Although willing to enter dangerous zones to advance peace and seek kindred partners, it remains to be seen if Erdogan is willing to use his immense power in a papal partnership or if Bartholomew will win back the clout needed to function as first among equals. One thing is certain, Francis is undeterred in his peace-seeking mission. 

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