Turkey should use Pope’s visit to improve image of Islam
Pope Francis will be visiting Turkey this weekend. This will be his sixth trip outside of Italy after he became pope in 2013. The fact that Turkey ranks among the first countries that Pope Francis is visiting already tells us a lot.
But let’s ask simply: Why is he coming?
First of all, we owe the visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The pope needs two invitations to hold visits outside of Italy, one of which has to come from the church. Here, we are not just talking about a simple official invitation extended by Bartholomew. A special relationship has been forged with the Pope by Patriarch Bartholomew, who attended Pope Francis’ inauguration and thus became the first head of the Eastern Orthodox Church to attend a papal enthronement since the great schism (the official division of the two churches in 1054).
Patriarch Bartholomew used the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting to end the division to further consolidate relations between the two churches. For those who might be unfamiliar with the issue, let me recall that the two churches started to mend their fences only after 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras met in Jerusalem. So, upon the initiative of Patriarch Bartholomew, both he and Pope Francis went to Jerusalem last May to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that historic meeting. It was only natural for Patriarch Bartholomew to invite Pope Francis to Turkey, and Nov. 30 is not just any other day: It is St. Andrew’s Day, which honors Andrew, who conducted missionary work around the Black Sea.
The Turkish state has never wanted to accept or highlight the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is first in honor among all Eastern Orthodox bishops. But the fact that the Patriarchate is located in Istanbul is an asset for Turks, not a liability. And the Turkish state made the right decision to invite Pope Francis.
Obviously, Pope Francis is not coming to Turkey just to improve relations between the two churches. Regional developments, especially in Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey’s position - not only its geographical location, but its stance as a country with a Muslim population - gives it a key importance.
The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has dealt a second crucial blow to the image of Islam in the world after the 9/11 attacks and deepened a vicious circle between the Christian and Muslim worlds.
The Muslim world is resentful that many Westerners equate Islam with terrorism. Muslims want the leadership in the Western world to take an active stance against Islamophobia. The West, however, is similarly resentful that the Muslim world is not taking an active stance against radical Islamists. This feeling has been further exacerbated by ISIL targeting Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, decapitating Europeans and Americans. Many in the West ask why Muslim countries are not strongly condemning ISIL.
The argument that radical Islamists have been fed from the injustices inflicted upon them by the West is not an answer. Complaining about the lack of unity in the Islamic world is no excuse either.
This is where Turkey should come into the picture.
It was Turkey that warned that keeping Nouri al-Maliki as the Iraqi prime minister would be a disaster for Iraq, since al-Maliki’s exclusion of Sunnis would lead them to support radical extremists.
Again, it was Turkey that had warned its western allies that Syria would become a hotbed of radicals if no action was taken in time.
Ironically, Turkey ended up being criticized for allegedly turning a blind eye to the passage of radicals to Syria, giving the impression that it suited Ankara's interests as long as radicals fought against Bashar al-Assad. But actually, ISIL poses a bigger threat than al-Assad, so Turkey should use the Pope’s visit to unequivocally condemn ISIL.