His Holiness Pope Francis visited Turkey with a vast program that lasted three days. It is a little difficult to understand why the head of the Catholic Church visits a country whose Catholics are only a very tiny part of the population, numbering perhaps 40,000 people. Well, Turkey still carries a rather unexpected weight in the Catholic world. The representation of the Vatican in Istanbul has been a post occupied by very important figures of the Church, not least late Pope John XXIII, who served more than three years as an Apostolic nuncio, an ecclesiastical diplomat, in Istanbul. However, this visit does not carry a symbolic weight and has been mostly dictated by dire necessity.
First of all, an unprecedented hatred is being unleashed in the Middle East in the form of a civil war where everyone slaughters every other group. Since the Mongol invasion of the early 13th century, which basically ended the might and glory of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, no such terrible bloodshed has been seen in the region. States have disappeared and beneath them the remnants of democratic statehood and civil society. The only apparatus left is either sectarian or ethnic, and this is very bad news for minorities. Many ancient churches exist in the Middle East, both in Iraq and Syria, albeit with very limited worshippers. Chaldeans and Assyrians can also be cited as examples. There are also very old beliefs like those of the Yazidis, who are considered as an original branch of celestial religions by some. All of these people have been either slaughtered or deported under the push of terror waged by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as well as the Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, Shiite and Sunni militias and other military forces rival between each other in terrorizing and massacring civilian populations.
The pope, being the highest representative of the Church, has a moral duty to come, pray and ask for international help for all the people under extreme duress in this part of the world. He has done it with brio. However, the pope's trip to Istanbul was a symbolic opportunity to reinforce "ties" with the Orthodox Church on the occasion of Saint George's Day where a Mass was celebrated together with Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and "primus inter pares," or first among equals, for all the Orthodox patriarchs. The pope also invited the deputy of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and Turkey's Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, to underline interfaith dialogue and common understanding. He prayed in Sultanahmet Mosque with Istanbul Mufti Rahmi Yaran, doing practically all he could to show his understanding and support for all people, from every belief who suffer terribly nowadays.
Perhaps the most innovative and striking dimension of the papal visit was the declaration made by Francis, regarding the humanitarian help extended by Turkey to almost 2 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. This immense humanitarian relief operation that has been continuing for more than two years and whose organization has been praised by a number of independent agencies including the U.N. is being almost totally unnoticed by international media outlets. Only now, with the call made by the Holy Father, has a strong message been sent to the mass media and the public of democratic countries concerning the support that should be extended to Turkey's humanitarian relief efforts.
Francis has again shown he is an admirable continuer of St. Francis of Assisi, not only by his modesty, but also by the strength of his faith and the humanitarian message he formulated. He also wanted the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, which was unexpected politically, but that was in continuation of the message he wanted to give. Maybe President Vladimir Putin of Russia will comment on this papal declaration during his visit, although nothing is less sure.