An ecumenical visit above all

By Sébastien de Courtois, Istanbul (Turkey)
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada

 Montreal/Turkey, Thursday November 27, 2014 – Pope Francis will be in Turkey from November 28 to 30.  First, he is destined for the capital, Ankara, then to Istanbul to meet Patriarch Bartholomew.  This last meeting is the real objective of the Papal visit, for it is important to the Churches, even if the two men know each other well.

This visit actually falls within a tradition begun by Paul VI in 1967, when he met with Athenagoras, the patriarch at the time.  Since, the tradition rooted itself with each of proceeding freshly elected Holy Father travelling to Turkey at the joint invitation of the patriarch and the Turkish authorities.

Following formal meetings in Ankara, with the president, Tayyip Erdogan and the Minister of Religious Affairs, the pope will bow before the monumental tomb of Atatürk, the founder of the Republic, in a sign of friendship. The following day, in Istanbul, Francis will go to Hagia Sophia, the great Orthodox Basilica (shown in the image to the right) in the company of the patriarch.  In the company of the Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yara, the pope will then go on foot to the close by Sultan Ahmed Mosque.  In the afternoon, he will go to a Mass for the Catholics in Turkey at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Harbiye.  The very next day he will participate in the celebrations of the Feast of Saint Andrew in the company of the patriarch in the venerable Saint George Church in the historic Greek district of Faith, Fener.


A walk toward unity

« The pope is very sensitive to finding ecumenism working between our two sister Churches.  If he comes to Constantinople, it is to encourage a walk toward unity.  Ecumenism is long process.  In the world of today, this is a very powerful symbol showing that the Churches see each other and speak to each other… the divisions belong to history.  Every year, to celebrate the Feast of Saint Andrew, a delegation from the Vatican comes to Fener,» explains Brother Gwenole Jeusset, a Franciscan of Santa-Maria-in – Draperis, one of the churches in the Beyoglu district.

The Patriarch has in the past already shown his interest in this question: “It’s not simply a matter of reiterating a strong ecumenical commitment made fifty years ago, but of intensifying the meetings in order to clear the way for a new stage in the establishment of full communion between our two sister Churches. We must give a visible sign that ecumenism is not running out of steam.” Last October in Istanbul, he himself held a conference in Italian – a language which he speaks fluently, as he does French and English – in order to celebrate the sanctification of Saint John XXIII, who had been Roman Nuncio in Turkey.

It is certain that the political aspect of this visit reinforces the Patriarch in his positions in Turkey. The reasons for conflict are numerous: the matter of Church properties – buildings and land – the reopening of certain churches for worship, such as the monastery of Sumela near Trabzon on the Black Sea, or more importantly the reopening of the Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki, which was closed arbitrarily in 1971.


The disastrous effect of the Islamic State

Finally, the situation of Christians in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Syria after the dramatic events of this summer cannot fail to arise in the conversation between the two religious representatives. Being a transit location for migrants, Turkey is confronted with the war being fought at its gates and with the disastrous effect of the Islamic State. And the question of refugees as well, as Turkey shelters more than two million Syrians and many others coming from Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa. Pope Francis made his first journey to the island of Lampedusa in order to make the European authorities sensitive to these human dramas. For a number of years the churches in Istanbul have again been full due to the unexpected presence of these thousands of the faithful. The clergy are sometimes overwhelmed. “On Sunday morning in the cathedral four Masses are said in succession, each in a different language. The faces of the unfortunates are those of the universal Church. Through this contact we are rediscovering the original meaning of the Gospel …” Brother Gwenolé concludes.

There remains the delicate subject for Turkey of the evocation, or not, of the Armenian genocide, towards which Pope Francis has shown himself to be extremely sensitive. Last June he referred to the persecutions before the Armenian Catholicos Aram I. There is no doubt that the Pope will be welcomed with joy by all the Christian communities in Turkey, but also by a number of Muslim Turks who are sensitive to his talk of an opening up and dialogue.

Even though Turkey´s Christian population is barely 0.3%, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported 100 projects in Turkey in the last twenty years. 

A significant amount of ACN´s help has gone towards Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the eastern part of the country. Since 2010, ACN donated a total of $182,600 to Iraqi refugees, mainly via the Chaldean Church and the Salesian Fathers in Istanbul. The Salesians look after families and are particularly concerned to ensure that the children continue to receive a school education.

ACN has also helped Syrian refugees in Eastern Turkey, since the onset of the Syrian crisis. From 2013 to 2014, ACN has donated a total of  $66,000 – towards their most essential needs.

We invite you to visit our blog – www.aidchurch.wordpress.com over the coming days to get more information on the subject and the situation effecting refugees in Turkey.

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