The Pope is going to Turkey this November. His itinerary is published here. It consists of the usual things for a Papal trip to Turkey; indeed, Pope Francis’s trip is more or less the mirror image of Pope Benedict’s trip which took place only 8 years ago.
You might wonder why Pope Francis needs to retrace the steps of Pope Benedict so soon, or indeed the steps of Blessed Paul VI, who visited Turkey in 1967, with an almost exactly similar itinerary or the steps of Saint John Paul II, who went to Turkey in November 1979.
For a country that contains hardly any Catholics, Turkey gets a lot of Papal attention. But the clue is in the date of three of these four Papal trips. With the exception of Blessed Paul VI, all the Popes have timed their visits to coincide with the feast of St Andrew, who is, as we all know, the brother of St Peter, and the patron saint of the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate. The Popes go to Turkey, not just to meet the Turkish presidents and prime ministers, and to venerate the tomb of Ataturk (which is what all foreign leaders do as soon at they arrive in Ankara) but to meet the Patriarch.
So that is really why the Pope is going to Turkey: in order to meet the Patriarch he has first to pay his respects to the Turkish government. No one should doubt that the Catholic Church is very keen to build good relations with Constantinople, and indeed with all Orthodox Churches, if possible. These four papal visits in the last fifty years are ample demonstration of that.
But the Vatican is clearly not averse either to trying to build good relations with the Turkish state. Turkey is perceived as a ‘bridge’ country beteen Europe and the Middle East, the Christian West and the Islamic East, so good relations with Turkey are essential if we are to have peace between religions. In addition, Turkey, being an overwhelmingly Muslim country, and a secular one too, is usually held up by many as the sort of country all Muslim-majority nations should be, a type of polar opposite of ISIS.
This last represents a degree of wishful thinking, as John Allen (and he is not alone in this) rightly points out, in an article here. Turkey is in many ways not a happy commonwealth, and faces several challenges: it is drawn in opposite directions by Islamism and secularism, and by opposing interpretations of nationalism. It is also wracked by a separatist movement that it has long resisted with great brutality. In the not to distant past, it was ruled by a military junta that executed a democratically elected Prime Minister. If Turkey is an example to the rest of the region, it is not a particularly inspiring one; nevertheless, it is the only one that we have.
The Turkish state is strongly anti-Christian (and some would argue, anti-Muslim too). One hopes, along with John Allen, that Pope Francis will speak up for religious freedom in Turkey. Will the Turkish government listen? While there is every indication that many in Turkey will sympathise with the Pope against the government, whose repressiveness seems to be growing, there is little chance that Mr Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly despotic President, will give the Pope more than a polite hearing.