ROME – Pope Francis will travel to Turkey Nov. 28-30, the Vatican announced Tuesday, though it remains unclear whether the pontiff will be able to travel near the border with Iraq to express his concern with the violence in the region, as he’s expressed an interest in doing.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed that Francis will make the Turkey trip, which will come just three days after the pontiff travels to Strasbourg in France to address the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
Among other items on the official itinerary, Francis is scheduled to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 28; to visit both the historic Christian basilica of Hagia Sophia, which is now a museum, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
He also will hold a joint worship service with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered “first among equals” in terms of Orthodox leaders, and sign a joint declaration with him Nov. 30.
This will mark the first papal visit to Turkey since a trip by Benedict XVI in 2006, which came shortly after the emeritus pontiff had triggered a firestorm of protest across the Islamic world with a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that was seen as associating Muhamad with violence.
Speculation about a visit by Francis began to mount earlier this year, and the outing is keenly anticipated for at least three reasons.
1. Muslim/Christian relations
Although Francis has visited majority Muslims states before in Albania and the Palestinian Territories, both were brief stops focused largely on matters of local or regional interest.
The Turkey trip therefore will be his first real opportunity to lay out a vision for Muslim/Christian relations, and comes at a time when the pontiff faces pressure to speak up in defense of Christian minorities and against Islamic-inspired terrorism in the Middle East.
In a Crux interview in September, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York urged the pope “to be more direct in calling for a thoughtful, moderate, temperate Islamic response.”
2. Christian unity
Francis has made unity among the various branches of Christianity a priority, beginning with the Eastern Orthodox. He’s cultivated a special rapport with Bartholomew, for instance, inviting him to join a peace prayer he staged in the Vatican gardens in June with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents.
The meeting at the headquarters of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the declaration the two men will sign, marks another step in overcoming a split between the Christian East and West conventionally dated to 1054.
The Turkey trip is likely to be the closest Francis will get to realizing his hope of visiting Iraq, which he revealed during an airborne press conference following his mid-August outing to South Korea.
The pontiff said he’d thought about a surprise trip to Iraq to express his concern for the violence there, including the fate of both Christian and Yazidi refugees from the self-declared ISIS caliphate. The pope said at the time he’d been persuaded it wasn’t a good idea, presumably for security reasons.
On background, Vatican officials said Tuesday the pope would still like to make an excursion somewhere near the Turkish border with Iraq to meet refugees, and if that proves impossible, then he’ll meet with refugees in Istanbul.
The pontiff is also expected to speak out on the violence in Iraq and in other corners of the region throughout his three-day Turkish visit.