Building bridges between Christianity and Islam would appear to be the main objective of the Pope’s visit to Turkey. The largely Muslim country’s history and geographical situation give it a unique role as a kind of crossroads between East and West.
Up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, after the First World War, several million Orthodox Christians lived in Turkey. Today there are no more than 70,000. Their numbers are said to have plunged through programs or conversion to Islam. A dialogue between the two branches of Christianity is also one of the main purposes of the papal trip. Talk of eventual unity of the two churches is in the air.
Dositheros Anagnostopulos is spokesman for the Patriarch of Constantinople: “One of the primary reasons for the Pope’s visit to Turkey is to unite Catholic and the Orthodox churches under the umbrella of a single church. Not now, in the future -they’ve been separated since 1054”.
These are the two largest Christian churches in terms of numbers of followers in the world. On the last day of his tour the Pope will celebrate mass in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul. He will also worship alongside the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.
The visit has been to coincide with the feast of Saint Andrew, one of the 12 apostles who is said to have preached in what is now Istanbul after Christ’s death. Theologians say the two leaders, faced with a growing secularism in Europe and the challenge of Islamic militancy worldwide, will find plenty to agree on.
But no breakthroughs are expected on the issues that split their churches 1,000 years ago such as the authority of the Pope and the nature of the Holy Spirit. The fact that the trip is going ahead at all shows a lot has been achieved in bridging the gulf between the Christian faiths.