Pope Francis is traveling to Turkey this weekend, with the visit taking place at an important juncture in relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East and in the world. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, debates about conflict between Islamic and Christian worlds dominated public discourse. Some analysts revived the “clash of civilizations” discourse that was so prominent in the mid-1990s. Many interpretations of the terror attacks on U.S. soil depended on these premises and many projections of the future of relations between Muslims and Christians were extremely bleak and depended on these apocalyptic scenarios. The Iraq War only exacerbated the situation and increasing loss of life in the conflict heightened the level of tension between people different faiths in the region and re-generated misunderstandings, fear and suspicion around the world. During this critical juncture of world politics, where the policies and discourse of different actors made the job of radicals easier, allowing them to manipulate, mobilize and recruit sympathizers, Turkey and Spain started an important initiative to promote tolerance, understanding and respect for different values and beliefs and to eliminate prejudices among the believers and followers of these different religions or belief systems. The Alliance of Civilizations Initiative was extremely idealistic in its mission and goals, and played an important role in shaping the understanding for peaceful coexistence.
Now 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, the conflicts in the Middle East and the threats to international security have again proved a fertile ground for the radicalization of people, increasing prejudices and phobias among people from different cultures and belief systems. Although the pope’s visit is not part of an initiative, such as the Alliance of the Civilizations, the messages that will be delivered by the political and religious leaders during the meetings may play an important role in increasing tolerance and feelings of peaceful coexistence in the region and will be instrumental in the fight against different sorts of phobias, including Islamophobia and hate crimes, which started to challenge the stability, social harmony and wellbeing of societies around the world. Especially after the damage of the controversial Regensburg lecture of Pope Benedict XVI, this could be a good opportunity to contain different disputes between members of different faiths, and eliminate misunderstandings.
The visit can also serve the interests of people living under persecution and oppression in different parts of the world. Because of the context, the political and religious leaders can attract the attention of the international community to the plight of the people in Syria and Iraq. The recent clashes in Syria and Iraq have created a massive of flow of refugees from different ethnic and religious backgrounds to Turkey and other neighboring countries. Among those, there were also tens of thousands of Christian refugees who escaped from the violence in the region and sought refuge in Turkey. Although the number constantly fluctuates due to the increasing mobility of the refugees, at every period of the conflict there were more than 30,000 Christian refugees in Turkey. Some of these Christians even decided to stay in Turkey and have not left since then. Both the government and the Christian community were instrumental in providing shelter for these refugees and restoring their livelihood. Under these circumstances, and when millions of people have been trying to survive in difficult conditions, such an important meeting is needed to increase awareness about the situation in the region.
In fact, in addition to increasing mutual understanding and tolerance between different religions, and of course within Christianity, considering the pope will be visiting leaders of the Orthodox Church, Pope Francis’s visit can project another significant message to the world about the plight of the people in the region, regardless of their ethnic background and religion. These messages will not only contribute to the dialogue between religions but also help for the common good of humanity.
This article was originally published in the Daily Sabah on November 29, 2014.