ROME — Pope Francis intends to travel to Turkey at the end of November, a trip that may take him to the border with Iraq in a demonstration of the pontiff’s concern for the violence there and the plight of refugees from the self-declared Islamic state, including an estimated 100,000 Christians.
Officials of the Turkish embassy to the Vatican confirmed to Crux that preparations for the trip are underway, which should see the pontiff in Istanbul on Nov. 30 for the feast of St. Andrew, considered the patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Francis is also expected to make a stop in Ankara, the national capital, for a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the moment, the Vatican is waiting for a formal invitation to the pontiff from Erdogan before announcing the outing.
The invitation for Francis to visit Turkey was first extended at the beginning of his papacy by Bartholomew I, the first Patriarch of Constantinople to attend a papal inaugural Mass.
Since then the two men have struck up a partnership, with Bartholomew meeting Francis on his May trip to the Middle East and later joining him for a peace prayer with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents in the Vatican gardens on June 8.
Interest in making the trip has been enhanced by recent developments in Iraq. During an airborne press conference on the way back from a trip to South Korea in mid-August, Francis expressed an interest in visiting Iraq but said for the moment such a journey is “not the best thing to do.”
His outing in November is likely the closest the pontiff will be able to get to Iraq itself, and will give him the opportunity to meet Iraqi refugees.
An embassy official said that Turkey, a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority estimated at 99 percent of the population, is currently “doing everything in its power” to welcome Christians and Yazidis who have been forced out of their homes in both Iraq and border regions of Turkey itself by ISIS forces.
Assuming the trip happens, it will be the fifth international voyage of Francis’ papacy. He’s already travelled to Brazil, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Israel and South Korea, and is scheduled to make a day trip to Albania on Sept. 21.
The meeting with Bartholomew in Istanbul presumably will take place at the Phanar, the traditional headquarters of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world.
The encounter will also mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of formal dialogue between the Catholic Church and six major Orthodox churches. Francis has made ecumenism, meaning the press for Christian unity, a priority of his papacy, beginning with stronger ties with Constantinople.
Notably for the first pope from the developing world, this will be yet another trip to a non-Western nation before Francis goes anywhere in either Western Europe or North America. The first such outing that’s semi-confirmed for now is an expected September 2015 journey to the East Coast of the United States.
Despite Francis’ wide popularity, Turkey has been one of the few places where government officials have at times been critical of the Argentine pontiff. During a recent wave of attacks on mosques in Germany, which has a large Turkish immigrant population, an official of Turkey’s Directorate for Religious Affairs said that Francis should be more outspoken in condemning such outrages.
“This doesn’t happen through things like washing a young girl’s feet or arranging inter-religious football games and tournaments,” said Mehmet Görmez, in an apparently scathing reference to symbolic moves made by Pope Francis.