Unity and religious freedom are high on the agenda for three-day visit.
Just six months ago, Pope Francis and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I met in Jerusalem, a 50th anniversary commemoration of the meeting of their respective predecessors, which energized the modern effort to restore full communion between the Churches.
Most people may have forgotten the May 25 meeting by now, with the deluge of events that have captured world attention since then—a war between Israel and Gaza, the advance of the Islamic State, the spread of Ebola.
But the embrace of the Pope and Patriarch in Jerusalem provided a meaningful theme for the reunion that will take place this weekend in Turkey. Photos and documents from the Jerusalem meeting are still featured on the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, under the title “The Brothers of Galilee: Peter and Andrew in the Holy Land.”
The names, of course, refer to the fact that the Bishop of Rome is successor to St. Peter, while the Archbishop of Constantinople is in the apostolic line of his brother, St. Andrew.
For years now, representatives from both Churches have paid each other courtesy visits on their patronal feast days: an Orthodox delegation will visit Rome on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, while a Roman Catholic entourage will return the favor on the Feast of St. Andrew, Nov. 30. Several times, popes have gone instead of their delegates: Pope St. John Paul II made the trip in 1979, Benedict XVI in 2006 and now Francis. Paul VI was the first pope to visit Turkey, in 1967, but he did so in July, on neither feast day.
“There’s a tradition to that: John Paul II did it, then Benedict, and now Pope Francis is following in that tradition,” said Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. He served from 1988 to 1992 on the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican. He spoke of the sense of a “need to develop that friendship and cooperation.”
“It’s Peter and Andrew coming together—the original brothers, one who went to Rome and the other who brought Christianity to the East and, through Cyril and Methodius, to the Slavic world,” said Anthony J. Limberakis, a radiologist who serves as head of the Order of St. Andrew/Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America, a group that supports the Ecumenical Patriarchate, especially in matters of religious freedom. “So we’re seeing a brotherly conversation that 50 years ago started after 900 years. Through the vision of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, the two apostolic brothers met in Jerusalem lifted the mutual excommunications and began a dialogue of love.”
For Limberakis and other Christians, the issue of religious freedom will be an important theme of the visit. Turkey is 99% Muslim, and although it is officially a secular state, religious minorities have to struggle for their rights.
“The modern Republic of Turkey has had a number of laws and policies that have severely restricted the freedoms of not only the Orthodox but also Catholics, other Christians and Jews,” Limberakis said.
Limberakis noted that the Church “lacks legal personality” under Turkish law, that the patriarchate’s only seminary—Halki—was shut down by the government in 1971 and has not been allowed to reopen. In addition, Church property that was confiscated by the government has still not been returned.
Many Orthodox—and others—are also concerned by recent statements by a high official in the government expressing the hope that the Church of Hagia Sophia would again be turned into a mosque.
“It’s very disappointing and a step in the wrong direction when the government already converted another Saint Sophia church in
Izmit into a mosque two years ago,” Limberakis said. “And they did the same to another church on the Black Sea, another Hagia Sophia, built centuries ago, one of the finest exampels of Byzantine architecture in the world. So when those two churches were converted into mosques and the deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç, said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the original Hagia Sophia become a mosque again,’ we were startled and outraged.”
The Pope lands in Ankara, the capital, Friday afternoon and will be welcomed by the newly elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is scheduled to visit the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From there, he will proceed to the presidential palace, where he will give an address and meet with the prime minister and the president of religious affairs.
“You can anticipate a negative reaction by some of the Turkish public if the Pope stays in the new 1000-room Presidential Mansion which was built illegally despite a court order stopping it,” said Jenny White, who specializes in Turkey at Boston University. “It was built on protected forest land planted by Ataturk, cutting down hundreds of trees. Also, President Erdogan is building an additional 250-room personal villa next door and architectural plans no longer show Ataturk’s home (he’s their George Washington). By staying there, people think, the Pope is legitimating the ruling party’s graft, lawlessness, and autocracy.”
On Saturday, the Pontiff will take the one-hour flight to Istanbul and visit what may be one of the most storied and controversial churches in the world—Hagia Sophia, also known as Saint Sophia or Holy Wisdom. Built in the sixth century, it served as the cathedral of the Archbishop of Constantinople but was converted into a mosque when that city fell to the Muslims in 1453. It is now a museum.
Directly afterwards, Pope Francis will stop in to the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known at the Blue Mosque because of the color of its tiles.
Francis then will celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. In the evening, he will join Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I for Vespers at the Patriarchal Church of St. George and meet privately with him afterwards.
In the morning, Francis will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent with a private Mass, but will join Bartholomew again at a Divine Liturgy in the Church of St. George. After the liturgy, the two will sign a common declaration, and Francis will offer words.
The Pope will depart for Rome that evening.
“Going back to Benedict’s visit, a papal visit has been seen as providing a great deal of support for the Orthodox,” said Aristotle Papanikolaou, senior fellow and co-founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. “Benedict kept insisting and reminding everybody that he was going to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch, not the state. The media focused on the fact that he was visiting a Muslim country. It’s the same this time. The real point is to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch. The visit is absolutely a sign of support for all the religious minority communities in Turkey, not only the Orthodox, but also Jews and Armenians.”
And, he added, Catholics.
With all the pressure being experienced by Christians throughout the Middle East, is Bartholomew looking to Rome for more support?
“I definitely think so,” said Papanikolaou. “I can’t imagine him looking at the Middle East and somehow not wanting to do things regarding Christians in the Middle East in some sense doing it with an alliance with Rome. Christians are under fire and being squeezed without discrimination, so I think they would do what they can to find common cause in bringing attention to that situation.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.