Pope Francis has begun a trip to Turkey with a call for interfaith dialogue to combat fundamentalism and terrorism.
Received at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s lavish new palace in Ankara, he also highlighted the persecution of Christians and the plight of refugees in the Middle East.
His host complained of rising Islamophobia in the West and the international community’s reluctance to confront Syria’s President Assad.
“In Syria, 300,000 people have been killed and seven million displaced,” Erdogan said, in a joint address with the pontiff.
“Refugees have fled to neighbouring countries and unfortunately this is being ignored. Nobody is talking seriously about the situation. There is state terrorism in this country.”
Erdogan is angry that fighting ISIL militants has been given priority by the West.
Majority-Muslim Turkey has not intervened militarily against Assad or ISIL but it has received nearly 2 million refugees from war-ravaged Syria, among them thousands of Christians – something not lost on the Pope.
He praised Turkey for “generously welcoming a large number of refugees”, adding that “the international community has the moral obligation to assist Turkey and support the refugees”.
Pope Francis began his three day trip with a visit to the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern secular Turkish state in 1923.
Turkey’s Christian population has dwindled over the past century and minority groups fear President Erdogan’s roots in Islamist politics mean it is moving in an ever less tolerant direction.