Pope Francis on Friday called for dialogue between faiths to end the Islamist extremism plaguing the Middle East as he visited Turkey on his first trip to the overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular state.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who welcomed Pope Francis as the first foreign dignitary to his controversial new presidential palace outside Ankara, for his part issued a strong warning about rising Islamophobia in the world.
The visit of the pope is seen as a crucial test of Francis’s ability to build bridges between faiths amid the rampage by Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Iraq and Syria and concerns over the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
“Inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue can make an important contribution… so that there will be an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism,” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said after talks with Erdogan.
He said the world “could not remain indifferent” to the causes of the tragedies in the Middle East and appeared to indicate military action could be permitted with the proper legal backing.
While an “unjust aggressor” could be thwarted, the problem cannot be resolved solely through a military response, Francis said.
Speaking in an overwhelmingly Muslim country which has a tiny but culturally significant Christian minority, the pope pointedly said all faiths should share the same rights.
“It is essential that all citizens â€“- Muslim, Jewish and Christian â€“- both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties.”
Turkey’s own Christian community is tiny — just 80,000 in a country of some 75 million Muslims — but also extremely mixed, consisting of Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Franco-Levantines, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans.
– ‘Rising Islamophobia’ –
Erdogan — long been accused by opponents of seeking to erode Turkey’s secular foundations with creeping Islamisation — chose the occasion to make a characteristically strong-worded warning against growing Islamophobia in the world.
“Islamophobia is rising seriously and rapidly. We must work together against the threats weighing on our planet — intolerance, racism and discrimination,” said Erdogan.
He angrily accused the international community of “simply being spectators” in the face of the “state terror” of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza earlier this year.
“There is a double standard and an injustice,” he said.
Turkey’s top cleric Mehmet Gormez went even further in comments after his meeting with the pope, expressing concern that Islamophobic “paranoia that has already been spread among Western public opinion” was being used as a pretext for discrimination against Muslims.
The pope addressed the problems of the 1.6 million refugees from the Syria conflict being hosted by Turkey, saying the international community had a “moral obligation” to help the Turkish authorities.
– Moving on to Istanbul –
In stark contrast to the close contact with crowds that have been such a feature of Pope Francis’s past trips, the streets of Ankara appeared deserted of well-wishers as his motorcade whizzed through.
The 77-year-old Argentine, who looked tired during parts of his crammed Ankara programme, on Saturday moves on to Istanbul for two days to visit key sites of the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman heritage as well as meeting the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
Closely-watched will be the pope’s visit in Istanbul Saturday to the Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church that was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and now serves as a museum.
His every gesture will be scrutinised later in the day when he visits the Sultan Ahmet mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, one of the greatest masterpieces of Ottoman architecture.
When his predecessor Benedict XVI visited the mosque in 2006, he assumed the Muslim attitude of prayer and turned towards Mecca in what many saw as a stunning gesture of reconciliation.
In his talks with Bartholomew I — the “first among equals” of the world’s estimated 300 million Orthodox believers — the pope will seek to narrow the schism between the two Churches that dates back to 1054.
The trip appears far less controversial than the last by a pontiff to Turkey — by Benedict XVI in 2006 — which was overshadowed by remarks he had previously made deemed to be anti-Islamic.
Papal visits to Turkey are still a rarity — Francis is the fourth pope to visit the country after Benedict in 2006, John Paul II in 1979 and Paul VI in 1967.