ANKARA, TURKEY – The last time a pope came to Turkey, it was after an incendiary 2006 speech by Benedict XVI that angered Muslims by appearing to link Muhammad with violence. Back then, the talk was about a “clash of cultures.”
Today, it’s more a clash of lifestyles that’s in play as Pope Francis arrived in the Turkish capital of Ankara, where he met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his sparkling new palace.
Francis is renowned for his personal simplicity, among other things spurning the papal apartments to live in a modest Vatican residence. The same certainly cannot be said for his host, who laid out more than $600 million building the vast “White Palace,” deliberately conceived to stir memories of Turkey’s imperial past under the Ottomans.
Depending on how you look at it, the 1,000-room palace is either a symbol of Turkey’s economic and political emergence, or a monument to Erdogan’s own ego.
Pope Francis is the first foreign leader to be received at the venue, which was inaugurated as the official residence of the Turkish president on Oct. 29, the country’s Republic Day. The building is said to be the largest presidential palace in the world, roughly 30 times larger than the White House and three times the size of Louis XIV’s Versailles.
Unfazed by complaints about the price tag, Erdogan also recently acquired a new presidential jet, an Airbus 330-200, at a cost of $185 million, having it painted in the red and white of the Turkish flag.
It’s not just sticker shock that has stirred controversy, but also the fact that Erdogan had the palace complex built on environmentally protected farmland, ignoring a court order to halt the project.
Erdogan has hit back sharply at those who question the grandiosity of his recent acquisitions: “If we want to get ahead of our rivals in the modern world, we need to do something,” he said. “Everyone judges you by your appearance.”
A Vatican spokesman recently dismissed questions about the pope’s willingness to visit the palace.
“When the pope is invited somewhere, he goes wherever the president decides to receive him, as any other educated person would,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Whatever Francis may privately think, there’s no indication he plans to embarrass Erodgan. The pope will meet Turkish authorities today in the palace, but his speech is expected to focus on religious freedom and dialogue among different faiths, not a critique of the surroundings.
Francis and Erdogan have serious business to discuss, including the rise of the self-declared Islamic State just across the country’s southeastern border in Iraq and the waves of refugees that have poured into Turkey in recent months from both Iraq and Syria.
Francis will also want to enlist Erdogan’s help in protecting Turkey’s small Christian minority, whose members sometimes feel like second-class citizens in a society that’s 98 percent Muslim.
Still, whatever the actual agenda between the two men, it will likely be difficult for many Turks not to see Francis’ mere presence as a sort of rebuke of Erdogan — or at least of his lavish lifestyle choices.
After all, in most parts of the world, Francis is arguably at least as influential as the Turkish president, and yet the pontiff didn’t feel the need to erect a $600 million Xanadu to prove it.
On Saturday, Francis will travel from Ankara to Istanbul, where he’ll meet Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, considered the “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders, and the two men will lead a joint prayer service.
On Sunday, Francis will take part in an Orthodox liturgy at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and then sign a joint declaration together with Bartholomew. In the morning, the pope will also hold a brief meeting with the Grand Rabbi of Turkey.
Francis will return to Rome Sunday evening, and as has become his custom, is expected to hold a press conference aboard the papal plane on the way back.