ROME – For the first time in almost sixty years, a Turkish president comes calling today on a pope. Despite a meeting of the minds over the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, in many other senses today’s encounter between Francis and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a study in contrasts.
Erdoğan, for instance, is a strong Turkish nationalist, while Francis continually emphasizes the priority of a universal human family. While Erdoğan draws criticism for leading what’s seen by critics as an increasingly autocratic regime, Francis preaches human rights and democracy. While Francis calls for peace in Syria, Turkey is ramping up its anti-terrorism operations, claiming a body count of 935 terrorists killed in the last 16 days.
Ahead of Erdoğan’s session with the pope, a group of Italian academics published an open letter warning that the incursion in Syria has a hidden agenda.
“After the defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria by the Kurdish forces, Turkey has embarked on a new war, with the attack started on January 19, 2018, precisely against those Kurds who have defeated ISIL,” they said. “The recent Turkish invasion in northern Syria can only mean the beginning of a new bloody conflict that will surely drag the region into a new catastrophe, which will inevitably kill children, bring hunger and will again force the local population to flee.”
Moreover, Francis repeatedly has warned against the “cancer” of corruption, most recently during a trip to Chile and Peru – two nations Erdoğan is also scheduled to visit after his stop in the Vatican. Erdoğan, meanwhile, is battling corruption allegations himself related to a high-profile Iran sanctions case in New York. Of course, there’s also lingering Turkish animosity from 2015, when Francis became the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to publicly call the 1915 killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians “genocide” — something Turkey has always denied.
And, at the level of lifestyles, the disjunction couldn’t be more dramatic – Francis spurning the papal apartment, Erdoğan spending more than $600 million on his vast new “White Palace,” roughly 30 times larger than the White House and three times the size of Louis XIV’s Versailles. As it happened, Francis was the first foreign leader welcomed by Erdoğan at the lavish complex.
Whatever the differences may be, however, both seemed determined heading in to accent the positive.
“I consider my visit to the Vatican as an important opportunity in the context of the establishment of common humanitarian values and messages of friendship and peace,” Erdoğan told a scrum of television cameras on Sunday gathered at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport prior to his departure for Italy.
The Turkish leader said that his agenda with Francis won’t be limited to the current controversy surrounding Jerusalem and the U.S. embassy.
“We will approach Palestine, Jerusalem, Syria, Iraq, the fight against terrorism, the problems of refugees and humanitarian aid,” Erdoğan said. “In addition, we will exchange opinions on the fight against Islamophobia and cultural racism.”
Islamophobia is a special concern for Erdoğan and his advisers, who in effect offered Francis a deal when the pontiff visited Turkey in late November 2014: Take up Islamophobia in the West as part of your human rights message, and we’ll help you with ISIS and other forms of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East, including their propensity to make special targets out of the region’s Christian minorities.
“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,” said Mehmet Görmez, who heads Turkey’s powerful Presidency of Religious Affairs, in an address to the pope.
Still, at the moment no issue looms larger in the relationship between Rome and Ankara than Jerusalem, with both Francis and Erdoğan having been quick to voice their dismay after the Dec. 6 announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump of the formal recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Erdoğan was among the bitterest critics of Trump’s move at a summit of Islamic states held in Istanbul shortly afterwards. He’s vowed to transform Turkey’s consulate in East Jerusalem into a full-blown embassy, as part of a recognition of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
As for Francis, he pleaded with the American leader not to go through with the move the morning the announcement was made, saying, “The primary condition of that dialogue is reciprocal respect and a commitment to strengthening that respect, for the sake of recognizing the rights of all people, wherever they happen to be.”
“I make a heartfelt appeal so that all commit themselves to respecting the status quo of the city, in conformity with the pertinent resolutions of the United Nations,” the pope said.
Francis has reiterated his concern that the embassy move might fuel new conflict several times since the announcement, including in his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi address.
Speaking in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, the pope implored world leaders to consider the children who continue “to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two states within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders,” he said.
Since the embassy move has been announced but not yet executed, Francis and Erdoğan may be hoping there’s still time to bring diplomatic leverage to bear on the Trump administration to persuade a reconsideration – though so far, Trump has given no sign of being open to reversing course.
Though it’s not on the list of issues the Turkish president mentioned, Francis and Erdoğan will undoubtedly also discuss the situation created by a Kurdish vote for independence in September, and prospect for new conflicts between Ankara and the Kurds.
Erdoğan may thank Francis for his restraint, since the Vatican largely has stayed out of the debate over the Kurdish independence drive – although Francis did receive Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on Jan. 12, offering to use the Vatican’s diplomatic channels to try to help the Kurds resolve their issues with Iraq, as Baghdad reacted with deep apprehension to the Kurdish vote, including shutting down Erbil’s international airport.
The last time a Turkish president visited a pope in the Vatican was in 1959, when President Celal Bayar met St. Pope John XXIII. That encounter had a biographical logic, since John XXIII had served as Apostolic Delegate in Turkey and Greece between 1935 and 1944, had often professed his love for the Turkish people, and even spoke a bit of Turkish.