ISTANBUL—Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Pope Francis to his sprawling 1,000-room palace in Ankara on Friday, but the most important discussions on the 3-day papal visit to Turkey will likely take place in a small 16th-century church in a waterside district of this city.
At the cathedral of St. George—a whitewashed building on the shores of the Golden Horn—Francis will meet Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, spiritual leader to the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.
In a series of Saturday meetings, the clerics will discuss bolstering efforts to work together despite the ancient schisms that have divided Catholic and Orthodox churches for more than 1,000 years. The agenda is expected to include dialogue on scripture, tradition and the thorny issue of reconciling the church hierarchy, a sticking point since the churches historic split.
The prospect of a formal reunion of the churches remains a distant prospect, but Pope Francis has made dialogue with other Christian churches a major thrust of his papacy, establishing warmer relations with other Christian leaders than Pope Benedict XVI did.
The push is characteristic of a pope who has tended to put aside doctrinal differences and instead seek to join forces on issues ranging from the persecution of Christians to poverty, the environment and migration. It is a priority given extra impetus by the dramatic exodus of Orthodox Christian communities from the Middle East and the rise of radical Islam.
Exhibit A in Pope Francis’ drive for better relations is his blossoming relationship with the 74-year old Bartholomew, Constantinople Patriarch since 1991 and an advocate of slow rapprochement with the Vatican.
“With the pope’s visit, the friendship between Orthodox and Catholic Churches will strengthen. We are sure of that,” said Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, the spokesman for the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.
The public meeting is the fourth by the two religious leaders so far, a significant sign, according to George Demacopoulos, an expert in Orthodox religions at Fordham University.
“The people in charge now are looking for common ground rather than what’s wrong with the other side,” he said. “They have finally figured out that they have so many areas of common concern that it so much more effective to speak together.”
But beneath the pledges to strengthen ties, the pope and Patriarch face a number of hurdles, principally the divisions within the Orthodox Church. While Francis is the ultimate authority over a single church, Bartholomew is seeking to align a dizzying array of more than a dozen self-governing Orthodox churches from Serbia to Syria, which must all agree on terms of negotiation with Rome before they take up uniform positions on a glut of liturgical issues.
Importantly, Russian Orthodox Christians, who together with the Ukrainian church make up the majority of Orthodox Christians, have a chilly relationship with the Vatican, one that could limit the clerics ability to present a united front on some issues such a persecution of middle east Christians, theologians say.
Still, Patriarch Bartholomew has scheduled the first ever pan-Orthodox synod for 2016 in the Hagia Irene Church in Istanbul, with the aim of adopting a framework for unified Orthodox talks with Rome. As a next step, he has proposed an Ecumenical Council of all churches, East and West, to meet in 2025 on the Sea of Marmara, 110 miles (180 kilometers) from Istanbul—where the first such Ecumenical Council was held in 325.
Bartholomew’s patriarchate has a complex relationship with Turkey’s government, which has in recent years eased draconian restrictions on minority communities, but has refused to reopen churches and failed to ease the concerns of a Christian community that has dwindled to 320,000, according to the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
But in the historic Istanbul district where the pontiff and Patriarch will meet, home to one of the city’s last remaining Greek communities, residents and visitors on Wednesday were busily preparing for Francis’ arrival, with local business predicting a boon from tourists and pilgrims.
Manolis Despotakis, a travel company owner from Crete, said he was bringing 150 people to Istanbul this weekend to see Francis. “These kind of steps between Catholics and Orthodox in recent years have had really positive results,” he said as he took another tour group around St. George Cathedral.