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.