On September 12, the Vatican announced that the Pope would be visiting Turkey in late November.
“This morning, the Holy See received the official letter inviting Pope Francis to visit Turkey from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President,” said Father Francisco Lombardi, head of the Vatican Press Office. “The length and program of the visit are still to be determined,” he added, “but preparations are being made for a trip during the last days of November.”
What the Pope will find there has yet to be seen, but he will likely address questions of declining religious freedom as well as policy regarding peace in neighboring areas of armed conflict.
In its annual report for 2014, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom returned Turkey to “Tier 2” (the former “Watch List”). The report states that “the overall landscape for democracy and human rights has deteriorated significantly during the past year, including serious new restrictions on internet freedom, privacy, and media freedom, with troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. Based on these concerns, USCIRF places Turkey on Tier 2 in 2014.”
According to the report, the ten countries placed on Tier 2 are characterized by serious violations of religious freedom “perpetrated or tolerated by the government.”
Meanwhile Turkey has riled the US and its allies by refusing to join in NATO action against ISIS. For the moment, Turkey has chosen to “sit out” the ISIS war despite its privileged position as the only NATO member bordering zones controlled by ISIS jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
Instead it has told allies that it will stay quietly behind the scenes, keeping its soldiers out of combat operations and even declining to allow NATO to use its bases or territories to launch air attacks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were both in Ankara last week on trips to urge Turkey to take a more active role in the conflict, meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials. Nonetheless, their efforts met with little success.
Whereas important Arab allies of the United States last Thursday promised to “do their share” to fight ISIS, committing to take action to stem the flow of soldiers and funds to the jihadists, and possibly even to join military action, NATO member Turkey refused to join its Arab neighbors in their pledge.
Turkish hesitation has several causes. On the one hand, ISIS holds dozens of Turkish hostages, including some diplomats, and Turkey likewise is reluctant to support its own rebellious Kurdish minority against ISIS in Iraq.
Pope Benedict, Francis’ predecessor, visited Turkey in 2006, an began with a message of dialogue and fraternity between Christians and Muslims in an effort to ease tensions over his perceived criticism of Islam. He also took the opportunity to campaign for religious liberty. “Freedom of religion,” Benedict said, “institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society.”
Pope Francis’ upcoming trip will provide him with the opportunity to offer similar encouragement and nudge Turkey in the direction of greater democracy and religious liberty.