Pope Francis Welcomes Turkish President Erdogan in Vatican to Discuss Status of Jerusalem

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets with Pope Francis during a private audience on February 5, 2018 at the Vatican. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Alessandro DI MEO (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRO DI MEO/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday morning, Pope Francis received the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for a 50-minute meeting in the Vatican, in the midst of heightened security, with thousands of extra police officers in evidence throughout Rome.

According to an official Vatican communiqué, two leaders discussed relations between the Catholic Church and Turkey, the migrant crisis and the status of Jerusalem. Prior to the meeting, President Erdogan told the Italian press that the most important issue to be discussed was the controversy over the Holy City, saying that his top priority for the talks was “the status of Jerusalem.”

The actual text of the Vatican statement read:

During the cordial discussions the bilateral relations between the Holy See and Turkey were evoked, and the parties spoke about the situation of the country, the condition of the Catholic community, efforts in the reception of the many refugees and the challenges linked to this. Attention then turned to the situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law.

Turkish media reported that the agenda for the meeting included “bilateral relations, the latest developments on Jerusalem, regional issues, the humanitarian tragedy in Syria, and the fight against terrorism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.”

“The two leaders stressed that ‘equating Islam with terror is wrong,’” reported Hurriyet Daily News, which added that Erdoğan told the pope that “Turkey values people from all religions, including Catholics, living in harmony and peace.”

As evidence of his open-mindedness, the Turkish president told the pope of the government-overseen restoration of 14 churches and a synagogue in Turkey.

Italian authorities banned protests in much of central Rome, although a small, authorized Kurdish demonstration against Erdoğan’s visit was held outside the Vatican.

In an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa Sunday, Erdoğan publicly thanked President Donald Trump for his phone call after declaring that the U.S. would be moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a measure that Erdoğan said was “against international law.”

The Turkish president went on to praise Pope Francis for his “sound message” after the news hit. “Because Jerusalem is not just an issue for Muslims. Both of us support the defense of the status quo and we have the will to maintain it,” he said.

Even prior to Mr. Trump’s announcement of the transfer of the U.S. embassy and the recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, Pope Francis issued a special appeal, calling for respect for the “status quo” in Jerusalem.

“My thoughts now turn to Jerusalem,” the Pope said before the large crowd assembled in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. “I cannot remain silent about my deep concern for the situation that has been created in the last days.”

“At the same time, I would like to make a heartfelt appeal for everyone’s commitment to respect the city’s status quo, in conformity with the pertinent United Nations Resolutions,” he said.

Erdogan’s meeting Monday was the first state visit by a Turkish leader to the Vatican in 59 years.

In 2015, Erdoğan “condemned” Pope Francis for his use of the expression “genocide” when referring to the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1917.

“Whenever politicians, religious functionaries assume the duties of historians, then delirium comes out, not fact,” Erdoğan said.

“I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” he said.

The Pope had referred to the 1915 event as an “immense and senseless slaughter” and called it “the first genocide of the twentieth century,” ending speculation whether the pontiff would risk alienating Turkey by using the term “genocide.”

A year later, Francis visited Armenia, including its genocide memorial, to the consternation of Turkish officials who accused the Pope of “lies and slander” after the pontiff once again made reference to the Armenian genocide, saying that his actions betrayed “a crusader mentality.”

In an official statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry lamented the Pope’s visit to Armenia’s “genocide monument,” while also criticizing his “unfortunate statements” and “unacceptable references to the 1915 incidents.”

Turkey said that Francis made statements “proven to be lies and slander” which revealed “Pope Francis’ unconditional commitment to the Armenian narrative.”

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