A dialogue of friendship
Pope Francis’ arrival in Turkey coincided with the Feast of St Andrew, Patron of the Patriarchal Church of Constantinople. He began his morning in Istanbul with visits to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the famous Blue Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia (now a museum), and he also gave a simple greeting to the Catholic community in the small garden of the Apostolic Delegation. These moments marked the ecumenical aspect of his journey, which opened in Ankara with meetings with the political and religious authorities of Turkey.
As the fourth visit by a pope in fewer than 50 years, Francis’ journey represented a new moment of that “dialogue of friendship, esteem and respect”, — as the Pontiff was quick to say, — the seeds of which were cast by Benedict XV nearly a century ago during the First World War, and then by the presence of Angelo Roncalli, Apostolic Delegate, in the country for a decade. Those instances were followed, beginning in 1967, by the visits of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, especially notable for the meetings with the Patriarchs of Constantinople Athenagoras, Demetrius and Bartholomew.
Pope Francis recalled that this land, inextricably linked to the origins and history of the Church, is “dear to every Christian”, hinting at the missions of St Paul, at the ancient Marian traditions and at the first seven Councils, all celebrated here. He then praised its vitality, acknowledging the importance of the role and responsibilities that Turkey plays today on the international scene, foremost in welcoming the huge number of displaced people seeking to escape the tragedies taking place in Syria and Iraq.
The deplorable situation of the persecuted was addressed again at the meeting with religious authorities during his visit to the Diyanet Presidency for Religious Affairs, where in 2006 Benedict XVI had confirmed the desire for friendship and cooperation with Islam in order to prevent the exploitation of faiths. “As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights”, Francis repeated, once again pointedly condemning “any violence which seeks religious justification”.The only way to build peace, Francis repeated at his meeting with the Turkish authorities, is through dialogue. Dialogue that takes into account the differences in order to build peace. And this cannot disregard general respect for the dignity of every human being, and thus of religious freedom and freedom of expression. “How much longer must the Middle East suffer the consequences of this lack of peace?”, the Pope asked with anguish. And he again forcefully condemned the fundamentalism and terrorism which soak the region in blood through the ruthless and brutal persecution of religious minorities, Christian and Yazidi in particular.
Condemnation, however, does not suffice. Efforts must be made to ward off the intolerance and hatred that hide behind religious pretexts. It is in this manner, the Pope underscored — in line with the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate — that Muslims and Christians can do a lot to recognize the common elements that exist in the two religions, “though lived according to the traditions of each one”, in order to rectify the trajectory which, with contempt for man, leads to death and offends God.
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