What’s behind the Pope’s visit to Istanbul?
It should always be remembered that the Vatican is a country, with its own king, the Pope. Historically, Vatican meddling in secular affairs has contributed greatly to human conflict. This is particularly true when it comes to the historic struggle between Islam and Christendom. Popes have been instrumental in leading the West against Islam.
Pope Francis’ visit to Istanbul can hardly be described as pastoral, as there are only 35,000 Catholics in Turkey. It’s therefore safe to assume the visit was political. What did the pope have in mind?
This visit was the fourth time a pope has visited Turkey. The first was Pope Paul VI in 1967. He caused quite an upset when he prayed in the Hagia Sophia, the sixth century church built by the Emperor Justinian. When Istanbul (then called Constantinople) fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453, the church was turned into a mosque. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Repubic, turned it into a secular museum 80 years ago. Pope Francis was careful not to pray in the 1,500-year-old building, not wishing to provoke Muslim sensibilities.
The visit was intended to improve relations, firstly between the primary leader of Christendom and his equal, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the 270th person to hold the title. Both churches go back a long way. The historic schism between the two occurred almost a thousand years ago, in 1054. Threatened by secularism and Islamic extremism, both leaders talk about unity, but, after a millennium, it’s not likely to happen. This does not, however, mean they cannot work together.
The pope is also interested in establishing closer relationships with the Islamic world. Unlike the Orthodox Church, there is no primary leader in Islam, but the pope is concerned about the worsening situation in the Middle East. A century ago, most of the countries that are in turmoil today were ruled from Istanbul as regions of the Ottoman Empire, the same Turkish Empire that conquered Constantinople in the fifteenth century. Istanbul was, therefore, a good place to start to reach some sort of rapprochement with Islam.
The pope called on Islamic countries to roundly condemn ISIS and to protect religious minorities in their midst. The whole region has witnessed a great deal of persecution of Christians in recent decades, after centuries of fairly peaceful relations between the two major religions.
With the persecutions in mind, the pope should have asked the religiously conservative leader of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, what happened to the Christians after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The official answer is that their conqueror, Mehmed I, generously gave them the freedom to practice their religion, as evidenced by the presence of a small community today. Only 1% of the country now is Christian. One thousand years ago, almost all the people were Christians. I asked this question a number of times during a visit to Turkey but never got a truthful answer. History shows that while some fled to Italy (and contributed to the Renaissance), most were killed, sold into slavery or forced to convert.
It’s what we can all expect if ISIS defeats the West.
Is the papacy once again going to lead the West against resurgent Islam?