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Middle East Amp North Africa
Pope starts testing trip to Turkey
From the Financial Times of Fri, 28 Nov 2014 16:01:00 GMT
Pope Francis and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan walk in front of honor guard at the presidential palace in Ankara November 28, 2014. Pope Francis begins a visit to Turkey with the delicate mission of strengthening ties with Muslim leaders while condemning violence against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)©Reuters

As Pope Francis began a high profile trip to Turkey, the contrast with his host was hard to miss.

The softly spoken Pontiff, who shunned the 17th century grandeur of the Papal apartments in the Vatican for more humble lodgings, became on Friday the first foreign dignitary welcomed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new 1,000-room, $600m palace, which boasts four times the floorspace of Louis XIV’s complex at Versailles.

Mr Erdogan is an outsize political leader, who has increasingly cast himself as the voice of downtrodden Muslims, even as his critics lambast him for his alleged authoritarianism.

“Believe me, outsiders don’t even like us,” the Turkish president told an Islamic meeting on Thursday, arguing that the west just wanted to take resources from a Muslim world in flames. “They look like friends but they want us dead, they want to see our children dead.”

But Francis has made what some analysts see as a special effort to foster ties with Islam – Turkey is the third Muslim majority nation he has visited out of six trips as Pontiff.

After making his way to the presidential palace accompanied by white helmeted cavalry bearing the Turkish and Vatican flags, the Pope called for “interreligious and intercultural dialogue” to help end “all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism”.

He praised Turkey for taking in over 1.5m refugees from the war in Syria and added that the rest of the world had the moral obligation to provide support.

Still, in comments which appeared to allude alike to Muslims in the west and Turkey’s own religious minorities, he said it was essential for Jewish, Muslim and Christian citizens to have the same rights and duties.

“Turkey, by virtue of its history, geographical position and regional influence, has a great responsibility,” the Pope concluded. “The choices which Turkey makes and its example are especially significant.”

Mr Erdogan said there was almost no issue which divided his views from the Pope’s, but appeared to upbraid the Pontiff for this week receiving Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who gained power via a military putsch. The Turkish leader warned that if coups and massacres were not condemned it was almost the equivalent of encouraging them.

Despite the spectacle of the meeting with Mr Erdogan, the origins of the Pope’s visit lie elsewhere: in an attempt to bolster ties between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, torn asunder almost a millennium ago.

The rift occurred in 1054, when a previous delegation from Rome served notice of excommunication of the then Patriarch of Constantinople on the altar in what was the world’s greatest church, the Hagia Sophia basilica – a site the Pope will visit.

Today the two churches are in the midst of a half century bid to improve relations and, after halting efforts in the past, the tempo has quickened.

But, as the Pope prepares to meet the present-day Patriarch, Bartholomew I, for an unprecedented fourth time, the road towards the two men’s goal of uniting the Catholic and Orthodox churches remains a long and arduous one.

“We need to remember that the two churches were divided for 1,000 years,” says Reverend John Chryssavgis, an adviser to the Patriarch, “It will take charitable and committed steps to clarify misconceptions, resolve differences and restore unity.”

Additional reporting by James Politi in Rome

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