Pope Francis to go to Turkey in November ... and maybe Iraq

Actually, a visit to Turkey by Pope Francis would be notable enough, given the move away from the Kemalist demand of secularism in the almost-completely Muslim state. There may be even more to the trip than just reminding the world of the important Christian heritage in Turkey, though.  According to Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín of Crux, Pope Francis might push his way to the Iraqi frontier during a visit that may catch observers by surprise:

Pope Francis intends to travel to Turkey at the end of November, a trip that may take him to the border with Iraq in a demonstration of the pontiff’s concern for the violence there and the plight of refugees from the self-declared Islamic state, including an estimated 100,000 Christians.

Officials of the Turkish embassy to the Vatican confirmed to Crux that preparations for the trip are underway, which should see the pontiff in Istanbul on Nov. 30 for the feast of St. Andrew, considered the patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Francis is also expected to make a stop in Ankara, the national capital, for a meeting with Turkish President Recep Erdogan. At the moment, the Vatican is waiting for a formal invitation to the pontiff from Erdogan before announcing the outing.

Armenian public radio has confirmed the story based on remarks made during a private audience with the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican. Pope Francis committed the trip, which will include Armenia as well.  It will be widely interpreted as an attempt to highlight the plight of Christians in the Middle East and act as a show of solidarity for their suffering:

Pope Francis has confirmed during a private audience with the Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See, Kenan Gürsoy, that he hopes to travel to Turkey in the near future, Daily Sabah reports.

The 77-year-old pontiff’s comments came on Monday as Gürsoy visited him to bid farewell, as the ambassador is due to leave Rome following the end of his assignment. …

He is expected to use the visit to call for an end to the killing of Middle Eastern Christians in Iraq and Syria.

Last month in off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis issued an extraordinary call for the global community to act, in order to stop the “unjust aggression” of ISIS and other terrorists conducting genocide and ethno-religious cleansing in the region. At that time, Francis told reporters on the plane leaving Seoul that he wanted to visit northern Iraq in solidarity, but that he realized that it was an impossibility.

This would be the next-best thing. A visit by the Pope to the border would focus immediate attention on the genocide against Christians and other minorities in the region, and it might also produce some attention on Turkey’s role in fueling ISIS during the earlier days of the conflict. The Turkish military — a NATO partner, let’s not forget — would put a great show in fortifying the border defenses, especially to protect the Pontiff, which would raise the profile even further. And if he manages to successfully visit the border, will Pope Francis be tempted to step across it as a symbolic gesture of defiance in the face of evil? I wouldn’t bet against it, although the Turks would be rightly anxious about any such attempt.

The Turks won’t be the only people embarrassed by late November if other nations don’t act soon. Francis called for action on August 18th, but the UN has yet to meet to plan a response to these mass atrocities. Barack Obama will finally get around to announcing an American strategy that will almost certainly rely on a multilateral alliance, and possibly very heavily on a pledge from the Arab League to do something about the Sunni extremists that were initially on their side in the Syrian conflict. The US continues its air strikes, but that hasn’t changed the situation on the ground for Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and heterodox Muslims targeted for genocide by ISIS.

Consider this an act of shaming, and a pre-emptive act at that. Pope Francis seems to be telling world leaders that if they can’t come together to do what’s right, he’s going to make their individual and collective failures obvious by the end of November. The clock is ticking.

Addendum: The trip is notable too for the status of the ecumenical relationship between the Catholic Church and Orthodox patriarchs. As Martín notes in Crux, the Patriarchate of Constantinople (the traditional name) is considered the “first among equals” of the Orthodox churches, and a key figure for any attempt at reconciliation between the apostolic Christian faiths. If Francis’ trip to the border will have a shaming quality for a world that has turned a blind eye to the persecution of Christians, the visit to the Patriarch has a more humble and reciprocal quality after the Patriarch’s attendance at Francis’ investiture as Pope last year.