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Islam, Orthodox and Peace: The Pope of Invitations?

Islam, Orthodox and Peace: The Pope of Invitations?

In a three-day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis covered three significant areas: the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Christian-Muslim relations and peace in the Middle East – especially in Syria and Iraq. The visit was primarily intended to be an ecumenical one to the centre of the Orthodox world. However, it took on a significant political dimension because of the Pope’s strong words for ISIS - Turkey is a supposed ally of the United States in the fight against ISIS and Islamist extremism. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

The visit is Francis’ sixth foreign visit and his third to a majority Muslim state. He visited Jordan and Palestine where, like in Turkey, Christians are a minority. He is the fourth Pope to visit Turkey; Paul VI visited in 1967, John Paul II in 1979 and Benedict XVI in 2006. The visit mirrored that of Benedict XVI in many ways. Yet, despite this it was also significantly different and could set the tone for a number of new developments.

On 28 November, the Pope from Latin America flew to Ankara to visit an almost completely Muslim country (68% Sunni and 30% Shiite). Turkey’s Christian population is insignificant – roughly 1% – about 140,000 of which only 53,000 are Catholics. The Catholic population is further divided into four rites: Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean. The Pope spent the first day of his visit in the capital, where he paid respects to the father of the nation, Mustafa Atatürk, by visiting his mausoleum. Here he expressed his hope that Turkey could be a bridge between East and West and a point where men and women in their diversity of culture and religion can live together in dialogue.

The Pontiff was then taken to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an. Pope Francis did not waste any time, but got down to business and addressed an issue that is close to his heart: peace in the Middle East and what contribution Christians and Muslims, together, can make to bring this about in solidarity. Francis said, “For too long the Middle East has been a theatre of fratricidal wars, one born of the other, as if the only possible response to war and violence must be new wars and further acts of violence.” He asked how much longer the Middle East needed to suffer the consequences of this lack of peace. President Erdo?an brought up the question of “Islamophobia” in the West because, seemingly, he believes the Pope can do something about this. The Pope countered this with a challenge: that the Muslim world condemn terrorism more strongly.

“We must not resign ourselves to ongoing conflicts as if the situation can never change for the better! With the help of God, we can and we must renew the courage of peace!” the Pope said. “Such courage will lead to a just, patient and determined use of all available means of negotiation, and in this way achieve the concrete goals of peace and sustainable development,” he said. In strong words Francis also stated that inter-religious and intercultural dialogue “can make an important contribution” to reaching this “urgent goal” so that there will be “an end to all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism, which gravely demean the dignity of every man and woman and exploit religion.”

Speaking of the conflict in the Middle East, the Pope praised Turkey for being hospitable to many refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq; Turkey has given refuge to an estimated 1.5 million people. Francis said “the international community has the moral obligation to help Turkey” but that it must also “not remain indifferent to the causes of these tragedies.” He told Turkish authorities that military solutions could not solve conflicts.

Pope Francis did not only have words for politicians. He addressed religious leaders, saying that Christian and Muslim religious leaders can make a difference in helping to overcome conflicts and working for peace. He said that good relations and dialogue between religious leaders are essential for realising solidarity.

The Pope said that the world “expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences”. Francis not only denounced violation of peace but also said “we [believers] must work together to find adequate solutions”. This, Francis continued, “requires the cooperation of all: governments, political and religious leaders, representatives of civil society, and all men and women of goodwill”.

On the second day of his visit the Pontiff travelled to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic hub. (On an earlier visit to Turkey, the mix of religion and culture fascinated me. Istanbul was once called Constantinople because the Roman Emperor Constantine, after granting religious freedom to Christians in 313, moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium in 330 and renamed this “new Rome” after himself.)

After taking off his shoes, the Pope entered the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and, standing beside the Grand Mufti, bowed his head and closed his eyes. This was a moment of “silent adoration” Vatican spokesman, Fr Frederico Lombardi SJ, told reporters. Fr Lombardi added that the Pope had told the Grand Mufti twice that “we must adore God, not just praise and glorify him.” He also reported that the Grand Mufti said to the Pope “God is a God of justice and of mercy. We are in agreement on this?”

Pope Francis, Lombardi said, responded with no hesitation “I agree”.

Pope Francis also visited the Blue Mosque where he prayed for Christian-Muslim relations. By doing this he confirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that Muslims and Christians worship one and the same God. The Council suggested this in its document Nostra Aetate – “Declaration on the Church’s relations to the non-Christian religions” which was published in 1965.

The rest of the Argentine pope’s stay focused on Christian celebrations. Turkey was once the “cradle of Christianity” where in Antioch, modern day Antakya, followers of Jesus Christ were first called “Christians”. The great Christian missionary, St. Paul, was born in Tarsus (in south-central Turkey) and preached in Antioch. He also founded the Church in Ephesus (where Mary is believed to have spent the last years of her life) and did missionary work in Galatia (around Ankara), Ephesus and Colossus (know as Honaz today). Francis’ primary purpose for visiting Turkey was to advance the cause of unity among Christians by helping heal the wounds caused by the almost thousand-year separation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Reconciliation with the Orthodox is priority of his pontificate and the extraordinarily good personal relationship that he has developed with Patriarch Bartholomew is contributing to this and was made visible during his visit.

The Pope surprised everyone when, at the end of the solemn Orthodox prayer service in the Church of St George in Istanbul, he asked the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, to “pray for me and the Church of Rome.” In a moving moment Francis bowed his head and rested it on the chest of the Patriarch, who then kissed his head.

On the last day of his visit Pope Francis spoke at the end of an Orthodox celebration of St Andrews of his desire, and that of the whole Catholic Church, for unity between Catholics and Orthodox. The Pope sought to overcome any fear of suspicion by assuring the Orthodox community that unity did not in any way mean “the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.”

“The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, is communion with the Orthodox Churches”. He told the Patriarch and the Orthodox Churches “to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.” This is significant because it may help overcome fears and suspicions among Orthodox that primacy would mean one of juridical power alone. At the end of the celebration the Pope and the Patriarch signed a common declaration and then appeared on the balcony to bless the people gathered under the rain in the courtyard below. Afterwards they had lunch together.

Later the Pope managed to meet a group of refugees from Iraqi and Syria – among whom there were a few Africans. On the flight back to Rome Francis, in what has become a tradition in this papacy, once again spoke to journalists. He again condemned terrorism, which is done in the name of Islam, and called for a global condemnation of terrorism in the name of Islam by Muslim leaders. He denounced all those who called Muslims “terrorists” and called for an end to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

What was significant about this visit?

First, Pope Francis laid out his vision for much more unity between Catholics and Orthodox. Francis, as Vatican commentator John L. Allen Jnr points out, offers several reasons why there should be a closer relationship. Absent was the imperative cited by many conservative Catholics and Orthodox to make a common stand against secularism. The Pope’s case does not rest on cultural wars but on the social gospel. Francis wants a unity that can bring about action to ensure that the dignity of every human person is respected. He stated clearly, in his address on Sunday at St Georges, that Orthodox and Catholics should come together to defend the poor, to end war, heal conflicts, and to help young people to see past materialism and to embrace a “true humanism.” Again and again Francis places the human person at the centre of his concern – not ideologies, doctrines or cultural wars.

Second, Pope Francis wants to build relationships so that people can collaborate for the common good. He sees dialogue as essential – within the Church but also with other Churches, religions and governments. He surprised many by praying in a Mosque and asking the Orthodox Patriarch for a blessing. Pope Francis believes in, above all, “right relationships” and repeatedly makes surprising, bold and moving gestures that speak of his deep desire for dialogue and right relationships.

Third, the Pope’s gestures are important and highly significant. Asking for a blessing and laying his head on the Patriarch’s chest said more than any words could have about unity and collaboration. This is a sign of humility and, perhaps, an acknowledgement that the Bishop of Rome can also learn from others and does not have all the answers. It shows that Francis knows what the correct protocol is before the Patriarch and says something about his own identity as “one among equals”. Pope Francis reveals his stance in gestures: hugging a man with a deformed face, washing the feet of Muslim woman prisoner, and asking the Ecumenical Patriarch for a blessing. Francis often says more through his actions than the words he speaks and writes – it’s important to watch what he does!

Fourth, peace continues to be a significant theme of this papacy. His call last year for a day of prayer for peace and his ongoing attempts to get people to talk so that peace can be established are all signs of how important this is for him. He sees people across the faith community as key to helping establish peace and believes that this can be done in solidarity.

Fifth, Francis is not afraid to challenge when he feels it necessary. He has not only challenged many within the Catholic Church but also, on Friday with the Turkish president and again talking to journalists on his return trip to Rome, urged the Muslim world to condemn terrorism in the name of Islam.

Sixth, Francis wants people of different religious persuasions to live out their faith in actions that bring about justice. A profession of faith is no good unless it is witnessed to in actions.

Seventh, here is a prominent Christian leader who goes to a Muslim country that is threatened by ISIS. He affirms people in their faith (Islam), encourages them, and shows his support for them against the atrocities committed by ISIS. He is also sending a strong message to ISIS by calling for solidarity in the face of the extremism they have resorted to. He makes it quite clear that he is not against Muslims but supports all people of goodwill against their actions.

Eighth, the Pope’s visit is also an attempt to gain rights for Christians in Turkey. His visit can be seen as a form of support for the Patriarch who has been asking the government to ease laws that make it difficult for Christians to build Churches and have access to resources.

Pope Francis was in Turkey for a weekend but probably made a very significant contribution to interfaith dialogue, ecumenical relations and the political situation in the region and on a global scale. Again Francis invites people within the Catholic Church, the wider Christian Community, people of other faiths and those in secular governments to review their positions on a number of pertinent matters so that the common good can be realised. More and more Francis seems to merit a new title: the Pope of Invitations. DM

Photo: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (2nd R) blesses Pope Francis during an Ecumenical Prayer in the Patriarchal Church of Saint George in Istanbul November 29, 2014. Pope Francis began a visit to Turkey on Friday with the delicate mission of strengthening ties with Muslim leaders while condemning violence against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. REUTERS/Umit Bektas


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