By Lisa Daftari
Pope Francis traveled on his first trip to Turkey over the weekend attempting to reach out to the Muslim community, warning that the Islamic State is a major threat to Christians in the Middle East and calling on moderate Muslims to join in constructive dialogue and solidarity with the rest of the world.
Instead, Turkish President Recept Tayyp Erdogan, who had a message of his own for the Pope, greeted him at his $600 million palace and blamed the rise of ISIS and the recent violence in Syria and Iraq, including beheadings, enslavements, and the wholesale ethnic cleansing of the region’s Yazidis and Christians, on the “rise of Islamophobia,” in the West.
The Pope’s trip comes as four young Christians in Iraq were beheaded when they chose death over conversion to Islam, according to the Vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, in this latest attack against the country’s Christian population.
The young children, all under age 15, were approached by ISIS members who threatened to kill them if they refused to convert to Islam and to declare allegiance to the Prophet Mohammad.
ISIS has displaced a quarter million Christians just in northern Iraq. This is a significant part of the vibrant 1.5 million Christian population before the war.
“Things were bad in Baghdad, there were bombs and shootings and our people were being killed, so many of our people fled back to Nineveh, their traditional home. It was safer, but then one day, ISIS – Islamic State. They came in and they hounded all of them out. They killed huge numbers, they chopped their children in half, they chopped their heads off, and they moved north and it was so terrible what happened,” Canon White said.
Another angle of the Pope’s visit was to express his desire to finally unite the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, which separated over religious and political differences in 1054.
“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 Pope said, emphasizing the importance of unity in the Christian world as the faith comes under increasing threats.
The Pope, who is the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics issued a joint statement with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, in which they expressed their concern.
“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.”
Emmanuel Lemelson, a Greek Orthodox priest from Boston, and founder of the Lantern Foundation, traveled to Turkey with his family to attend the meetings as part of the Orthodox delegation.
“The word ‘historic’ gets thrown around a lot but this was really historic. We are seeing a closeness between the Churches that we have not seen in almost a millennium. A reconciliation might just happen in our lifetime,” Lemelson said.
Lemelson pointed to the various instances in recent history, including the latest massacre of Christians by ISIS, underscoring the importance of unity in the Christian world right now.
Despite Erdogan’s divisive stance, the Pope continued with his effort to establish better relations with the Islamic world, making a visit to Istanbul’s celebrated Blue Mosque Saturday.
The Pope expected a warmer welcome by the people of Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country whose inhabitants are 99 percent Muslim with about 100,000 Christians. A century ago, Christians made up about 20% of Turkey’s population.
“Turkey has an incredibly important role in all of this. Turkey has the opportunity in the future to serve as a model moderate Islamic country where there is peaceful collaboration between Christians and Muslims,” Lemelson said.
Since the start of the Syria war, Turkey has taken in 1. 7 million refugees, a small percentage of them are Christians.
“The Muslim world has to get on board. Turkey has to get on board. Violence will be associated with Islam if the Islamic world doesn’t stand up to denounce it,” Lemelson said.