On Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a historic visit to the Vatican, where he met with Pope Francis to discuss the world's pressing problems. Although the meeting might appear symbolic, it is important to note that the two leaders have developed a strong bond, which could and should translate into concrete progress.
The president's visit was significant for at least three reasons.
First, President Erdoğan and the pope have been engaged in open and constructive dialogue for several years. Francis visited Ankara in 2014 to become the first world leader hosted at the newly built Presidential Palace complex. Earlier this week, Erdoğan became the first Turkish president to visit the Vatican since Celal Bayar in the 1950s. The close relationship between Erdoğan, one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in the world, and the pope, the leader of the catholic world, stands in stark contrast with the rise of populism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe.
Secondly, the close relationship between the pope and the president is not just symbolic. Pope Francis's efforts on Myanmar, refugees and Jerusalem has been appreciated by the world and have made him one of the most effective popes in the Vatican. Erdoğan's desire to continue his cooperation with the Catholic leader is a clear sign of this appreciation. In a range of issues including the most recent controversy surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump's Jerusalem move, the two leaders have joined forces to make a difference. Largely thanks to their efforts, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution against the Trump administration's effort to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Erdoğan thanked Pope Francis for his sensible approach to the issue during their meeting earlier this week.
Finally, Erdoğan and Francis have been the leading advocates of a humanitarian approach to the global refugee crisis. In recent years, violent conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere have displaced millions of people, many of whom fled to seek refuge in neighboring countries and other parts of the world. At this time, Turkey remains home to the world's largest refugee population of around 3.5 million Syrian nationals. Likewise, Pope Francis has taken a bold stance regarding the global humanitarian crisis and set an example to Christians around the world by adopting 12 refugee children from a detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos.
At a time when common sense must prevail over populism, hatred and hostility, the dialogue between Erdoğan and Pope Francis offers plenty of reasons for optimism. Specifically, the two leaders could bridge the gap between Muslims and Christians, not just in Europe but also around the world. As Turkey and the EU seek some type of rapprochement, the Vatican could make a positive contribution by combating xenophobia, Islamophobia and hatred of migrants and refugees by reminding the Christian nations of Europe that compassion, not exclusion, lies at the heart of their faith.