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Christians in the Muslim World

New ‘Turkish’ Steps towards the Unity of Christians

The editor of Agos, the only weekly that is published in Turkish and Armenian, commented on the ecumenical consequences of the visit of Francis to Ankara and Istanbul and gave space to the voices of the Armenia and Anglican communities as well as to experts on religious pluralism.

The visit of Pope Francis to Turkey (28-30 November) had a great impact on the world and the Turkish people. In addition to the political dimension, his visit had a historical importance as regards commitment to dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox and their unity. The joint declaration which was signed on the occasion of the meeting of Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew achieved a major resonance not only in the Christian world but also in the Islamic world, above all in the Middle East. The words of the Supreme Pontiff during the return flight to Italy attracted the attention of the journalists present to the subject of the sensitive relationship between Turkey and Armenia: ‘One thing that is very close to my heart, the Pope observed, is the Turkish-Armenian border: if this could open, that frontier, it would be a beautiful thing! I know there are geopolitical problems in the area, which don't facilitate opening the border. But we have to pray for the reconciliation of the peoples’. Words such as these further increased the importance of the visit and have drawn greater attention to the ceremony that will take place in the year 2015: ‘in memory of the victims of 2015’, even though the persons in charge in Vatican have not yet pronounced on the question.



After taking part in the celebration of the feast day of St. Andrew in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Bartholomew I and Francis issued another joint declaration in which they expressed the principal purpose of the visit: ‘We express our sincere and firm resolution, in obedience to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, to intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all between Catholics and Orthodox’. A small and significant gesture was made by Francis when he went to visit – a short time before his departure – the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Mesrob II, at the hospital of Surp Pirgiç. Although it did not receive much coverage in the local press, its symbolic value was very strong within the context of the ‘unity of all Christians’ that has been talked about a lot.



Agos, an independent weekly published in Turkish and Armenia, wanted to re-examine the papal visit through various voices: that of the Armenian bishop, Sahag Masalyan; that of Engin Yildirim, an Anglican priest and theologian; and that of Bilal Sambur, a lecturer on Islam and religious thought and a specialist on religious pluralism.



Msgr. Sahag Masalyan observed that a part of the Orthodox world has expressed a certain resistance to unity with Rome and emphasised the meaning of the prayer of Francis with Patriarch Mesrob II as a gesture of special attention towards the Armenians: ‘The Pope spoke about the reopening of the frontier between Turkey and Armenia. One can see that the Pope knows the Armenians well and this is a good thing. The gesture towards the Patriarch was also important because it demonstrated the importance that the Pope gives to humanity and people in need. Up to now, all the apostolic voyages to Turkey have envisaged a visit to the Armenian community – certainly a privilege for this people. In addition, this visit constitutes an important message both as regards the unity of Christians and for inter-religious dialogue. When he entered the room of Patriarch Mesrob, Francis asked that only his family remained. We waited outside. During the ten minutes that he stayed in the room he prayed and stroked and kissed the head of the Patriarch’. As regards the joint declaration of the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Msgr. Masalyan observed: ‘Certainly it was an important sign, but things like this had taken place before. However, a certain reluctance towards such unity comes specifically from the Orthodox world. Some areas of the Orthodox Church are not in agreement with Patriarch Bartholomew. For example there are tensions between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Church of Constantinople and the efforts towards unity are very difficult. It is not easy to solve in a short space of time a division that has lasted for a thousand years. It should be said that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew already demonstrate a unity that can be an example for all Christians. Certainly this attempt will have a practical impact but we still do not know which one. Amongst the projects that exist there is that of convoking the Council of Nicea again in the year 2025. On that occasion a declaration of common faith could be published’. Within this framework encounters could also be envisaged with the Armenian Church. Msgr. Masalyan explains: ‘Various Vatican commissions are active that work with the Eastern Churches. From a theological point of view these meetings are proceeding in a positive way, but there are divisions inherited from the past. For example, a saint for one Church has been excommunicated by another. What is underway is a pathway of mutual knowledge between the Churches and in this dialogue practical steps can be taken, such as celebrating Christmas and Easter on the same dates, for example.



Engin Yildirim, an Anglican priest and theologian, declared to Agos that the Anglicans are in favour of unity too: ‘The history of Christianity is, unfortunately, full of wars and divisions, which certainly do not honour the Church. Despite this, the point reached by the ecumenical movement that came into existence at the beginning of the last century is satisfactory. The essential change which has to take place lies now in the sincere and radical steps that the principal exponents of the various Churches have to take. One of the best examples of these steps was the visit of Pope Francis to the Ecumenical Patriarch. As the Pope declared in his message given at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, unity is not ‘individualism’; diversities, indeed, are a gift of the Holy Spirit and, leaving aside the differences between us, we must pursue unity. As an Anglican priest and theologian I embrace these words with great joy. Our hope is that the Church will be one, because Jesus Christ does not see his Church as Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican’.



Professor Bilal Sambur wanted to emphasise how the separation of Catholics and Orthodox has always been a great wound for the Christian world. With the Second Vatican Council there began a search for possible agreements: ‘The visit of the Pope to the Ecumenical Patriarch, their taking part in the Holy Mass and the publication of the joint declaration demonstrate that we have reached a new stage in the relations between the two Churches. We can say that in the future we will see new meetings and agreements between the Vatican and the Patriarchate. The Vatican has shown that it wants to forgo a hegemonic mentality, that it has recognised other Churches and religions and accepts them as peers. To solve the problems of humanity through agreements and dialogue we have to be peers in the Spirit. The visit of the Pope to Turkey has not only been symbolic – what took place during this visit highlights the possibility in Istanbul of engaging in dialogue and achieving an ecumenical revolution’.