Pope Francis urged Muslim leaders worldwide to “clearly” condemn terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, and called for an end to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
Francis said he had told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that “it would be wonderful if all the Muslim leaders of the world — political, religious and academic, spoke up clearly and condemned” violence which damages Islam.
The pope acknowledged that current global crises had generated a danger of all Muslims being tarred with the same brush.
Francis attacked those who say “all Muslims are terrorists”, adding: “As we cannot say that all Christians are fundamentalists.”
In a rare joint plea, the pope and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I spoke out against anti-Christian violence, saying the world could not stand by and allow “a Middle East without Christians.”
They said the “terrible situation” of Christians calls “for an appropriate response on the part of the international community”.
The Argentine leader of the world’s Catholics denounced what he termed the current wave of “Christianophobia” in the Middle East, accusing Islamist radicals of “hunting” Christians while certain officials acted as if “they did not want any left in these countries”.
The pontiff did not specify which countries he was referring to.
– Overtures to Muslims –
The pope’s trip to Istanbul — once the capital of the Christian Byzantine world and formerly known as Constantinople — was marked by his overtures to Muslims and other Christian confessions.
On the final day of his first visit to Turkey, Francis urged an end to the millennium-old schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches and said this was all the more urgent due to the violence against Christians by Islamic State (IS) extremists.
Early Sunday he attended a divine liturgy led by Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of an estimated 300 million Orthodox believers.
Bartholomew for his part said that while the road to full communion would be “perhaps lengthy and sometimes even rugged” it was irreversible.
He echoed the pope’s comments that the violence against Christians had made this more pressing. “We no longer have the luxury of isolated action.”
The two Church leaders also called on the parties involved in the Ukraine conflict “to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law”.
– Visit to Blue Mosque –
The pope and Bartholomew have in the last months worked hard for a rapprochement between the eastern and western Churches which have been split since the schism of 1054.
The reconciliation began in 1964 with the famous embrace in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the first such meeting since the 15th century.
Bartholomew, who commands considerable respect beyond the Orthodox Church, holds an office that dates back to the early days of the Byzantine Empire, over a millennium before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
During a prayer service Saturday, the pope bowed his head and asked Bartholomew to kiss him on his brow, in a remarkable sign of humility towards the patriarch.
In another hugely symbolic moment, the pope during a visit Saturday to Istanbul’s Ottoman Sultan Ahmet mosque — better known abroad as the Blue Mosque — turned towards Mecca and stood in two minutes of reflection next to a top Islamic cleric.
His trip was marked by crowds far thinner than during previous visits abroad but also by the heaviest security, which extended to positioning snipers on the balconies of mosque minarets.
Turkey’s Christian community is tiny — just 80,000 in a country of some 75 million Muslims — and only a small proportion of these are Catholics.
Francis’s trip was less controversial than the last by a pontiff — the visit by his predecessor Benedict XVI in 2006 was overshadowed by remarks he had previously made deemed to be anti-Islamic.