Pope Francis met young refugees from Syria and Iraq on Sunday, a few hours after joining Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to denounce the plight of Christians there.
“The degrading conditions in which so many refugees are forced to live are intolerable,” the Pope told about 100 young refugees in Istanbul, less than an hour before boarding his flight to Rome. “We must do everything possible to eradicate the causes of this situation.”
Addressing the refugees, who included Christians and Muslims, Pope Francis publicly reiterated his appreciation for Turkey’s acceptance of refugees from neighbouring lands – an estimated 1.6 million from Syria alone.
The Pope did not repeat his earlier statements of qualified support for multilateral military action against ISIS militants who have targeted Christians in Syria and Iraq. But he appealed for “greater international cooperation to resolve the conflicts which are causing bloodshed in your homelands, to counter the other causes which are driving people to leave their home countries, and to improve conditions so that people may remain or return home”.
Meeting about 100 young refugees in the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis told them: “I wanted to meet other refugees, but it was not possible.” The young people, who also included refugees from Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa, sang for the Pope in Spanish, English and Arabic.
Earlier in the day, the Pope joined Patriarch Bartholomew, considered first among equals by Orthodox bishops, to sign a joint declaration that highlighted violence against Christians in the region.
“We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians,” the leaders wrote, specifically noting the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
“Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes,” the declaration said. “Tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many.”
The statement described an “ecumenism of suffering”, according to which the “sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity”.
“We no longer have the luxury of isolated action,” the Patriarch said during a liturgy celebrating the feast of St Andrew, patron saint of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. “The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which church their victims belong to. The unity that concerns us is regrettably already occurring in certain regions of the world through the blood of martyrdom.”
Pope Francis, also speaking during the liturgy, said that the “cry of the victims of conflict urges us to move with haste along the path of reconciliation and communion between Catholics and Orthodox. Indeed, how can we credibly proclaim the message of peace which comes from Christ, if there continues to be rivalry and disagreement between us?”
The leaders’ joint declaration called for peace in eastern Ukraine, where a war between government forces and Russian-backed separatists has exacerbated historic tensions between Eastern Catholic and Orthodox communities there.
“We call upon all parties involved to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law,” the declaration said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s support for the separatists, which has drawn international condemnation.
Pope Francis said unity between the Churches is also necessary to combat the “structural causes of poverty”, including unemployment and scarce housing, and a “dominant culture” of materialism that particularly demoralises the young.
The Pope assured his listeners 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”, and that Orthodox Christians would not lose their distinctive forms of worship, spirituality and governance in a reunion with Rome.
Full communion between the Churches, which have been divided since 1054, “means neither submission of one to the other nor absorption, but rather welcoming of all the gifts that God has given to each to show the whole world the great mystery of salvation realised by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit,” the Pope said.
The Pope’s first meeting of the day was with Rabbi Isak Haleva, chief rabbi of Turkey. Turkey’s Jewish community of about 25,000 traces its origins to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
On the way to the airport for his return flight to Rome, Pope Francis stopped at an Istanbul hospital to visit 58-year-old Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Mesrob II, who is seriously ill.