Pope Francis‘ sixth international trip is taking him to Turkey, where he plans to push forward with reconciliation efforts with the Orthodox Church, promote dialogue with Islam and give hope to the endangered Christian minorities in the Middle East.
Vatican City (dpa) - Pope Francis will reach out to the Orthodox Church this weekend by travelling to Turkey, in a trip where he is also expected to speak out against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Strengthening ties with the Orthodox Church, which split from Rome in the 1054 schism, will be the main focus of the November 28-30 trip, which will take the Argentine-born head of the Catholic Church to Ankara and Istanbul.
"We are not different religions. We are brothers who have grown apart along the way, each sure of following the path indicated by the Lord," Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, told Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana ahead of the visit.
The reconciliation efforts are not made any easier by the fact that while Bartholomew is the top patriarch of the Orthodox world, he cannot impose his views on the leaders of more than a dozen other Orthodox churches.
By contrast, the pope is the absolute ruler of the Catholic Church, meaning it is unclear whether any deal between Francis and Bartholomew would be endorsed by the other Orthodox churches.
Efforts to heal their rift started in 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras held a historic meeting in Jerusalem.
Bartholomew now says completing the process will take "effort, patience, prayers, reciprocal love and respect, and welcoming [spirit]."
In Istanbul, the pope will join Bartholomew in celebrating the November 30 Feast of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of the Orthodox world. The two will also sign a joint declaration. Francis‘ predecessor, Benedict XVI, did the same in 2006.
"I‘m looking forward to this meeting with great expectations," Wolfgang Thoenissen of the Institute for Ecumenics in Paderborn, Germany, told dpa. "One has to understand that this, in its entirety, has symbolic value."
Francis will land in Istanbul on Saturday. On that day, he is scheduled to visit the Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in Christendom. It was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and turned into a museum in 1935.
He is also due to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque - widely known a the Blue Mosque - and celebrate mass in Istanbul‘s Catholic Cathedral, where he will meet representatives of Turkey‘s small Christian community.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi says Francis will likely use the occasion to meet Christian refugees from Iraq, after tentative plans for him to visit them across the border in the Kurdish regions of Iraq were dropped due to security reasons.
Christian presence in the Middle East has been dwindling for decades, but recently there has been a mass exodus of community members from Iraq and Syria as a result of the steady advance of the Islamic State extremist group.
"We cannot be resigned to imagining a Middle East without Christians," Francis said last month.
The Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, Louis Raphael Sako, has compared Islamic State attacks on Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq to the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
"These barbarous acts, which will always be a blot in human history, are promoted by organizations and ideologies similar to the Nazis and other totalitarian political philosophies," Sako said last week at a meeting of Muslim and Christian leaders in Vienna.
Francis, for his part, is likely to deliver a message of brotherhood to Islam, as he visits a nominally secular but overwhelmingly Muslim nation where religious minorities, including Catholics and Orthodox, regularly complain about harassment.
According to Vatican expert John L Allen of the Crux Catholic website, endangered Middle East Christians are looking for words of encouragement.
"The key question on this front about the pope‘s three-day visit (...) is whether at the end of it Christians will feel as if they‘re in a stronger position to ride out the storm than they were before the pope came," he writes.
Known for his no-frills approach, Francis will be welcomed in Ankara on Friday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his new palace, which has been criticized for being excessively lavish. It cost 615 million dollars and has 1,000 roooms, according to local reports.
The pope will also visit the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Amid terrorist threat warnings, Francis will use an armoured car. But the Vatican has downplayed security concerns, saying an open-topped popemobile has been ruled out only because no crowds are expected to line up the streets to greet the papal motorcade.
Turkey is the pope‘s sixth international trip, after Brazil, the Holy Land, South Korea, Albania and Tuesday‘s visit to Strasbourg, France. He plans to go to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January.