Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, called for peace in Syria and Iraq, saying that “gross violations” against minorities by Islamist militants aren’t diminishing.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes” in order to be “faithful to their religion,” the pope said during a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara at the start of a three-day visit.
The international community has a “moral obligation” to help shelter refugees from the conflict, he said, while Turkey also has a responsibility when it comes to “identifying viable paths for peace and progress.”
Turkey is home to around 1.6 million refugees, including Christians and members of other minorities who fled months of turmoil triggered by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The papal visit is the first to Turkey since 2006, and comes at time of heightened concerns among the country’s own dwindling Christian population.
The European Union has demanded that Turkey, the bloc’s only Muslim candidate, expand the rights of religious minorities. Turkey doesn’t recognize Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew I as leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians and has rejected EU demands to reopen a closed seminary that had been used to train Orthodox priests.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has been based in Istanbul for about 17 centuries. There are around 120,000 Christians in Turkey today.
Authorities in Turkey’s capital have tightened security, deploying 2,700 police officers on the streets, according to Anadolu Agency.
Francis is scheduled to meet members of the Turkey’s Christian community as well as Bartholomew.