Half a century on from the first meeting between a Pope and an Orthodox Patriarch, one of the frequently asked questions at the end of this visit to Turkey is how long will it take before the two Churches are reunited again? A second question that’s been on everyone’s lips in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation is what difference will this trip make to the interreligious tensions that continue to inflame conflicts in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, to cite just those places that have been mentioned by name over the past three days. Pope Francis responded to both these questions during a lengthy press conference on the plane back to Rome. (He also walked down between the seats shaking all of our hands with a smile, a joke, a word of thanks for the job that we do).
On the ecumenical front, he noted that not all Catholics and Orthodox are happy with the progress that’s been made, but he said the work of convincing the more conservative factions must continue with patience and humility. While remaining sceptical that theologians will announce a breakthrough in the dialogue any time soon, the Pope also reiterated his firm conviction that Christians must continue with the daily practise of praying, working and teaching together. No-one is putting a timeframe on the reconciliation of East and Western Christianity, but there is hope that a synod of leaders from around the Orthodox world, planned for 2016 (with Catholic observers possibly in attendance) will help to speed up this urgent ecumenical journey.
On the interfaith front, the Pope spoke warmly of his meeting at the Diyanet in Ankara with Muslim leaders, saying we need to take a step forward in the quality of conversations between people of different religious beliefs. He said he told Turkish president Erdogan that leaders must clearly condemn all terrorist violence that has nothing to do with the Koran, which he called “a book of peace”. He also mentioned his visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque where he said he prayed for peace in Turkey and beyond. Both the encounter with the Grand Mufti in his place of prayer and his tour of the ancient Hagia Sophia museum, while not novelties in themselves, will surely encourage trust and open doors to understanding the pain of each other’s historical memories.
The Pope also talked about a question that surprisingly hasn’t been under the spotlight – next year’s centenary of the Armenian genocide in which a million and a half people died at the hands of the Ottoman forces. While Turkey has long denied this historical tragedy, the Pope noted that President Erdogan has recently mentioned the event, saying any such attempts to reach out are positive, however small they may be.
Finally, as we’ve so often seen, Pope Francis’ thoughts at the end of this Turkish trip were with the refugees – those who rarely make news headlines, but with whom he had a last brief encounter before leaving Istanbul. And that’s what this visit was really all about: not grand political gestures or historical religious agreements, but rather about personal encounters and small signs of hope through which we witness to the human values at the heart of our different faiths.
Vatican Radio (Philippa Hitchen)