ANKARA, TURKEY -– Pope Francis on Friday offered measured support for military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, marking a return to what had been his stance after he appeared to back away from it earlier this week.
On the first day of a three-day swing in Turkey, the pontiff also faced strong pressure from his hosts on a new front in tensions over religious freedom: What Turkish leaders described as the worrying rise of “Islamophobic paranoia” in the West.
In effect, both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his top deputy for religious affairs seemed to propose a deal to the pontiff: If you want our help in cutting off support for radical Muslim movements, then you help us in promoting better treatment of Muslims in your own backyard.
On the morality of the airstrikes by a US-led coalition against ISIS targets, the pontiff has recently sent mixed signals.
In August, Pope Francis flashed a cautious yellow light by saying “it’s legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor,” though only under certain conditions.
This past Tuesday, however, the pontiff seemed to soften that support at the end of a visit to the European Parliament. He warned that “state terrorism” is often worse than the extremist movements it’s intended to combat, in part because “many innocents also fall” when states launch indiscriminate reprisals.
Speaking today in Turkey, Francis’ language was more approving.
“In reaffirming that it is licit, while always respecting international law, to stop an unjust aggressor, I wish to reiterate that the problem cannot be resolved solely through a military response,” he said.
Francis did not mention the Islamic State by name, though it was clear from context it was the primary reference since he denounced “terrorist violence in Iraq and Syria.” By saying military action cannot the “sole” resolution to the conflict, the pope clearly seemed to accept it as part of the mix.
Francis was addressing Erdogan and other officials of the Turkish government, on the opening day of his Nov. 28-30 visit to Turkey.
The pope’s words came in a portion of his speech, delivered in his customary Italian, in which he addressed the waves of refugees that have spilled across Turkey’s southeastern borders with Iraq and Syria, fleeing the Islamic State.
“Grave persecutions have taken place in the past and still continue today to the detriment of minorities, especially, though not only, Christians and Yazidis,” Francis said. “We cannot remain indifferent to the causes of these tragedies.”
Though the Vatican has no formal capacity to veto any proposed military action, informally the pope’s moral authority often carries weight. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin credited Francis with eroding support for Western military strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On other fronts, Francis used his two speeches today, one to Turkish officials and the other to the country’s powerful Religious Affairs Ministry, to make a pitch for dialogue among religions and common efforts to combat “fanaticism and fundamentalism.”
Francis pressed his Turkish hosts to protect the religious freedom of its minorities, “both in the provision and practice of the law.”
Although Turkey is officially a secular state whose constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, it’s an overwhelmingly Muslim society in which Christians and other minorities, including a small Jewish community, often complain of being treated as second-class citizens.
The pontiff defined religious freedom as “an eloquent sign of peace.”
In his remarks to the pope, Erdogan tried to put the shoe on the other foot in terms of religious tolerance, condemning what he called “the very serious and rapid trend of growth in racism, discrimination, and hatred of others, especially Islamophobia in the West.”
Erdogan’s pitch seemed to be that if the pope and other Western figures want Muslim leaders to mobilize against expressions of radicalism such as the Islamic State, then the price will be fighting anti-Muslim prejudice in their own backyards.
He said he hopes the pope’s visit to Turkey will help “break various prejudices in the Christian world.”
Mehmet Görmez, who heads Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, echoed that line in his speech to Francis tonight.
“We feel anxiety and concern for the future that the Islamophobic paranoia that has already been spread among Western public opinion is being used as a pretext for massive pressures, intimidation, discrimination, alienation, and actual attacks against our Muslim brothers and sisters living in the West,” he said.
Francis repeatedly expressed deep appreciation for Turkey’s efforts to help refugees from Iraq and Syria, opening the trip with a brief comment to reporters on the way to Ankara, saying he wanted to praise Turkey for the “important work” it’s doing.
Erdogan seemed pleased with the pope’s visit, which he said would reach “not just Turkey but the whole Muslim world.”
Friday is likely to be the most overtly political day on Francis’ three-day itinerary.
He was greeted by Erdogan Friday morning at his lavish new presidential residence in Ankara, dubbed the “White Palace,” which cost more than $600 million to build.
Francis is the first foreign leader to be received at the structure. A turquoise carpet was employed rather than the traditional red as the president and the pope made their way indoors, and the honor guard also wore brand-new turquoise uniforms — another sign, Turkish observers said, of Erodgan’s desire to signal that a new era begins with him.
Görmez gave an interview today to one of the country’s leading newspapers, just hours before his meeting with Pope Francis, which was critical of the Catholic Church. Among other things, Görmez said that in the past the Church has been an obstacle to the sort of “open dialogue” needed among religious leaders.
That, too, was seen as a measure of a new assertiveness, with most observers presuming that Görmez would not have spoken in such a fashion without the go-ahead of the president.
Tomorrow and Sunday, Pope Francis turns to what is really the official purpose of the trip, which is outreach to Orthodox Christians.
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 vowed on Friday to hold another press conference during his return flight Sunday night, and it may well be he’ll take another question on ISIS. It remains to be seen if he’ll also give another answer, or this time stick to the script.