Pope Francis’s trip to Turkey this weekend will put a spotlight on the country’s besieged Christians.
A century ago Christians made up a fifth of the population of Turkey; now they are less than one per cent. Both Greeks and Armenians faced persecution for decades, and many were driven out of the country.
Dominican Fr Claudio Monge, who leads a Centre for Cultural and Interreligious Dialogue in Istanbul, told Vatican Radio that Pope Francis’s meeting with Catholics will be “very important for us”, adding: “We need really this presence to keep heart.”
The biggest problem, he said, “is that we don’t have juridical statutes, we are really foreigners in this country, with no official rights”.
Fr Monge mentioned that Christians in Turkey are members of “four important rites” – Latin, Armenian, Syrian and Chaldean.
Robert Koptas, editor of the Armenian weekly newspaper, Agos, told the BBC that Armenian Christians were fearful of expressing their religious identity.
He said: “Most of the believers hide their cross inside their shirt. They can’t open it and walk freely on the street because they could prompt a reaction.
“I don’t want to say all the Turkish population is against Christianity but nationalism is so high that people are afraid to express themselves.”
Fr Iulian Pista, a Catholic priest in Istanbul, told the BBC: “To be a Turk now means you have to be Muslim.
“In the past, being a pious Muslim was looked down upon. Now Friday prayers are encouraged. Society here is becoming Islamised. Recently, I’ve seen youngsters defecate and urinate in my church. They shout ‘Allahu akbar’ [English: God is great]. I also believe God is great but the way they say it is threatening.”
The Pope will hold meetings with both political and Christian leaders during his short visit.
He will arrive in Turkey on Friday and be there until Sunday. His visit begins at the mausoleum of the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His first day focuses on diplomatic relations with the Turkish government; he will meet both Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Saturday Pope Francis will travel to Istanbul, where he will visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox basilica which became a mosque and is now a museum.
He will give a homily at a Mass in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Ankara, have a prayer visit to the patriarchal Church of St George in Istanbul.
On Sunday, the Feast of St Andrew, Pope Francis will hold a joint worship service with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is considered “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders, and sign a joint declaration with him.
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