Pope Francis has condemned the persecution of Christian communities in the Middle East, blaming the fanaticism of terrorist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The Pope warned that Christians were in danger of being wiped out in the region on the final day of his visit to Turkey, which has been accused of failing to stop Islamist extremists from crossing its borders into Syria and Iraq.
His position put him at odds with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had earlier blamed the emergence of Isil on “rising Islamophobia” in the West. Pope Francis has made concern for the plight of Christians in the region a key theme of his visit.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics issued a joint declaration yesterday with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, in which they expressed their dismay at the persecution of Christians.
“We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians, who have professed the name of Jesus there for 2,000 years,” they said. “Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes.”
The Vatican confirmed that the Pope had wanted to visit a refugee camp on Turkey’s border with Syria but said that there had not been enough time to include it in his schedule. “The Pope desires many things but there was no time to do it,” said Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
“If we had had four or five days instead of three, then maybe it would have been possible.”
The Pope and the Patriarch, who have established close ties since Francis was elected to the Seat of St Peter in March last year, decried “the terrible situation of Christians” across the region.
They called for stronger dialogue with moderate Muslims as a way of confronting and combating the fanaticism of groups like Isil, which has carved out what it calls a “caliphate” across large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
“The grave challenges facing the world require the solidarity of all people of good will, and so we recognise the importance of promoting a constructive dialogue with Islam based on mutual respect and friendship,” they said in the declaration. The Pope met the refugees at the residence of the Vatican’s representative in Istanbul.
The small group is among the estimated 30,000 Christians who have sought refuge in Turkey since the start of the Syrian war and the rise of Islamic State. “Your difficult situation... is the sad consequence of brutal conflicts and war,” the Pope told the refugees, who receive assistance from the Salesians, a Roman Catholic order.
“The degrading conditions in which so many refugees are forced to live are intolerable,” the 77-year-old pontiff said. Turkey’s neighbours, principally Syria and Iraq, had been “scarred by an inhumane and brutal war.”
The Pope also tackled another key objective of his visit, saying that he hoped that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, which split over religious and political differences in 1054, could one day reunite. Declaring that he believed centuries-old theological differences between the two churches could be overcome, he said:
“I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.” The Argentinean pontiff said he wanted to put an end to the “rivalry and disagreement” that have poisoned relations between the sister churches for nearly a millennium.
“The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, is communion with the Orthodox Church.”
By Nick Squires