Istanbul — Pope Francis has said military solutions cannot stop violence in the Middle East, using his first remarks during his visit to Turkey to call instead for wider inter-religious dialogue and a "solidarity of all believers" to counter religious fundamentalism.
Speaking to the leadership of the continent-straddling country in the capital of Ankara Friday, the pontiff said flatly that the "grave conflicts" in Iraq and Syria "cannot be resolved solely through a military response."
"What is required is a concerted commitment on the part of all, based on mutual trust, which can pave the way to lasting peace, and enable resources to be directed, not to weaponry, but to the other noble battles worthy of man," said Francis.
The pope was speaking Friday hours after touching down in Turkey, where he is visiting Ankara Friday before heading to the historic Christian center of Istanbul Saturday and Sunday. Francis was addressing Turkish leaders, including president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at the presidential palace Friday afternoon.
While the pontiff did not mention any perpetrators of the violence in the region by name, his remarks seemed to be focused on the violence perpetrated by the so-called "Islamic State" militant group.
Mentioning "hundreds of thousands" of minority populations like Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria who have been forced to flee their homes "in order to survive and remain faithful to their religious beliefs, the pontiff sharply critiqued the ongoing violence.
"The Middle East ... has for too long been a theater of fratricidal wars, one born of the other, as if the only possible response to war and violence must be new wars and further acts of violence," said the pontiff.
"How much longer must the Middle East suffer the consequences of this lack of peace?" he asked forcefully. "We must not resign ourselves to ongoing conflicts as if the situation can never change for the better!"
To counter what he labeled "fanaticism and fundamentalism," Francis called for a "solidarity of all believers" based on four principles:
- Respect for human life;
- Freedom of worship and "to live according to the moral teachings of one’s religion;"
- "Commitment to ensuring what each person requires for a dignified life;" and,
- Care for the environment.
"The peoples and the states of the Middle East stand in urgent need of such solidarity, so that they can 'reverse the trend' and successfully advance a peace process, repudiating war and violence and pursuing dialogue, the rule of law, and justice," said the pontiff.
Francis also subtly criticized the leader of Turkey in his address, telling them to grant the same rights of expression to all people of faith in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Calling on the country to serve as an example of inter-religious dialogue and encounter, the pontiff told the leaders it is "essential that all citizens -- Muslim, Jewish, and Christian -- enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties both in the provision and practice of the law."
"Freedom of religion and freedom of expression, when truly guaranteed to each person, will help friendship to flourish and thus become an eloquent sign of peace," said the pontiff.
"The Middle East, Europe, and the world all await this maturing of friendship," said the pope.
A country of some 76 million, 97 percent of Turkey's population identifies with the Islamic faith.
While the Turkish constitution protects freedom of belief, in recent years Turks critical of Erdoğan's government have said those protections are not practiced in fact. In one example, most Christian churches are not designated as places of worship and are instead legally instituted as cultural places or centers of association.
One popular Turkish academic and inter-religious dialogue expert said in an interview Thursday that Erdoğan's government was even practicing a version of authoritarian Islam.
"Through the centuries, Islam in Turkey has always had [a] liberal and humanist interpretation," said M. Niyazi Öktem, a professor of law at Fatih University in Istanbul and a Muslim who has worked for decades on inter-religious dialogue with Catholics and Christians.
But Erdoğan, said Öktem, "is showing the authoritarian aspect of the Islamic religion."
Erdoğan, who was elected the Turkish president in July and took office in August, previously served as the prime minister of the country from 2003 to 2014. While the Turkish constitution hands most powers of government to the prime minister, leaving the president a largely ceremonial figure, some analysts say Erdoğan is attempting to consolidate more power into his new office.
Öktem also said he did not "have any hope" that Erdoğan would "reopen a new door with moderate Islam and the Western world." Continuing, the academic said, "that's the reason I don't see any political influence of the Holy Father [coming] to Ankara."
Another critic of the Turkish government agreed that it seemed unlikely Francis' visit would address criticisms, but said he thought the papal visit could have unseen impacts.
"I believe religious leaders setting example for their communities matters a lot," said Fatih Ceran, external affairs director for the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul, a group that focuses on inter-religious dialogue.
"It's a principled attitude," said Ceran. "That dialogue is good; it's worth promoting; it's valuable."
Ceran, whose group is the only non-governmental organization in Turkey with consultative status at the U.N., also said Francis' visit could have an impact in combating an increasingly isolationist attitude taken by the Erdoğan government.
"We are going through some kind of isolation and isolation goes hand in hand with xenophobic attitudes," said Ceran. "Pope Francis' visit in such a context is a very positive message, both on behalf of his institution and his person."
Following his address to the political leaders Friday, Francis met that evening with the head of the country's Presidency of Religious Affairs, a government ministry known commonly as the Diyanet that is charged with providing and regulating religious services in Turkey.
In remarks to the Diyanet, Francis largely restated his earlier address but said: "As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights."
"The world expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences," said the pontiff.
In the speech at the Diyanet the pope also expressed gratitude to Turkey for housing refugees from conflicts in other places, particularly Iraq and Syria.
"This is a clear example of how we can work together to serve others, an example to be encouraged and maintained," said the pontiff.
Francis will travel to Istanbul Saturday morning, where after visiting the famous Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia the pontiff will say Mass for Istanbul's small Latin Rite Roman Catholic community at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.
Following those visits, the pontiff will host an ecumenical prayer and then have a private meeting with Orthodox Christian leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
The meeting with be the last in several for Francis and Bartholomew, considered "first among equals" in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, following the patriarch's historic visit to Rome in 2013 for Francis' inauguration and their joint trip to the Holy Land last May.
The two are to meet again Sunday for lunch, after signing an expected joint declaration about the visit.
There has been very little notice as yet of the pope's visit in Istanbul, where there are no banners announcing the visit and news stations have rarely mentioned the pope's arrival.
The head of Istanbul's Latin Rite Catholic community said in an interview Thursday that his community, comprised of just 17,000 people in the city, was virtually unseen.
Turks, said Istanbul's Apostolic Vicar Bishop Louis Pelâtre, "think everybody is Muslim."
"They know there are Christians, but they do not know they are here," he continued. "For them it is something special, something outside the ordinary life."