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