Unlike Pope Francis’ first visit to the Middle East on May 24-26 during which he visited Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem, this time he limited his visit to Turkey and not just to İstanbul, but to meet Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Ankara, the capital.
The fact that the pontiff, the global leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, would visit the Middle East twice within a space of six months indicates the Vatican’s view of the dire straits of Christians and Christianity in the Middle East.
It also demonstrates the existential concerns the Vatican has about the future of Christians in the central lands of the Middle East.
Christians living in the Holy Land — Jordan (240,000); Israel (161,000); the West Bank (40,000); and Gaza (2,000) — comprise 370,000 of a total population of 17-18 million. This population, in spite of duress, has managed to remain somewhat vibrant.
The concerns of the pontiff and other Christian leaders, both in the West and in other parts of the world, are that the growth of Israel and its expansion and potential annexation of the West Bank might induce a further exodus of Christians, leaving empty churches and lifeless shrines, a prospect Christian leaders think will diminish worldwide the appeal of Christianity.
Pope Francis made it clear to Israel’s governing class during his May 2014 visit to Jerusalem that he very much wanted a resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Implicit in his appeal was that a failure of resolution and any further conflict would jeopardize Christianity itself.
The situation for Christianity has become more dire in the six months since Francis’ first visit. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) coupled with the prior expulsion of Christians in Iraq has resulted in the dwindling of Christians in Iraq from an estimated 1.2 million to 700,000. There has also been a fall in the number of Christians in Syria from an estimated 2.2 million to possibly 2 million or less. Many have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and to Christian communities in diaspora; many seek to leave the Middle East.
Pope Francis is desperately attempting to preserve Christianity as a viable faith in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He realizes that it is vital that he and Christians have the support of the Turkish government and its Islamist president in this endeavor.
Christian clergy in the Middle East, the West and globally realize that Turkey will be the strongest country in Syria and an important player in Iraq after the “great shakeout” that is taking place and in the reconfiguration of ethnic, religious and tribal entities within current borders.
Turkey’s position toward peoples of Iraq and Syria
Turkey’s position toward the peoples of Iraq and Syria in the aftermath of the “great shakeout” will be of prime importance. The main reason for this is that Turkey has supported resistance forces to Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-Shiite-led regime, whether jihadist, secularist, nationalist or Islamist. The challenge to this position is that the majority of the some 2 million Christians in Syria support the regime as they believe a victory by the resistance, however characterized, will be anti-Christian and will confront Christians with an existential threat to their lives, religion, culture and civilization.
On Nov. 27, just one day prior to Francis’ arrival, President Erdoğan, speaking before members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest Muslim political and economic organization in the world, stated: “I speak clearly. Those who come from outside [the Muslim world] only like the oil, gold, diamonds, cheap workforce, conflicts and disputes of the lands of Islam. Believe me, they do not like us. They [the non-Muslim world] like seeing us, our children die. How long we will continue to tolerate this?”
Not coincidentally, it seems, US Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara shortly before Pope Francis. Biden was seeking the support of Turkey to defeat ISIL and to negotiate the demise of the al-Assad regime. Nothing was said, publicly at least, about the fact that vast number of Christians support the regime. Moreover, Biden’s remarks were made by the same man who advocated vociferously as early as 2006 that Iraq should be broken up into three different regions. This was a position that contributed to the sectarian war that commenced in 2009 which, in turn, led to the ethnic cleansing of Christians, Yazidis and others.
Nothing could make clearer the clash of politics, religion, cultures and civilization between the objectives of the US government, the EU and Latin American countries and those of Pope Francis and other Christian leaders, especially Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the 300-million-strong Orthodox Christian communities with whom Francis met on Nov. 30 in İstanbul and who is the spiritual leader of the majority of Christians in Syria and many in Iraq.
The pope and the patriarch have much to consider.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. Click here to go to the original.