Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis heads to Turkey on Friday with a brief to use his populist touch to rebuild bridges with the Islamic world that were damaged by his predecessor Benedict XVI.
It will be the first papal visit to Turkey since the now-retired Benedict went there in 2006 against a backrop of anger in much of the Muslim world over comments which appeared to link the Prophet Mohamed to violence.
The frenzied atmosphere which dominated the run-up to that trip was followed by Benedict appearing to pray silently alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in the city s celebrated Blue Mosque in what was seen as a gesure of reconciliation.
The pope s spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said Francis may make a similar gesture of respect.
“Obviously one can t speak of a formal prayer on the part of a Christian in the Mosque,” Lombardi said.
“The holy father will show his respect and spiritual contemplation but it will be without expressing outwardly with words or anything else that he is of another religion. That seems to be to be only normal good sense.”
The three-day trip to the 99 percent Muslim but officially secular state is also intended to bolster relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, whose spiritual leader is Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul), at a time when the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has created the potential for tensions between the branches of Christianity.
No meeting with refugees
The pontiff will meet with members of Turkey s tiny Catholic community but no time has been specifically allocated for him to meet Christian refugees who have fled Islamic militancy in Iraq and Syria.
Given the pope s well-established interest in the fate of refugees around the world, this state of affairs has raised eyebrows and suspicions that Turkey did not want any events which might highlight the persecution of Christians in the region, an issue of growing concern for the Church.
Such concerns have been played down by the Vatican with the papal spokesman arguing that any Catholics wishing to meet the pope were likely to be at a reception he is due to hold on Sunday at the residence of his representative in Istanbul.
On the religious front, the pope will attend services marking St Andrew s day on Sunday. Andrew, an apostle of Jesus Christ, is regarded as the founder of the Eastern church.
As for Benedict s visit exactly eight years ago, security is expected to be extremely tight. There has been no suggestion of the 77-year-old Argentian pope doing any walkabouts and his pope-mobile has been left behind in Rome.
The first leg of the trip is to be in the Turkish capital, Ankara. He arrives there on Friday lunchtime and heads straight for a courtesy visit to the mausoleum of modern Turkey s founder Kemal Ataturk before being received by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his controversially extravagant new palace.
The main business of the trip will take place in Istanbul from Saturday, when Francis will visit Hagia Sofia, an architectural wonder that was once the jewel in the crown of the Orthodox church, later became a mosque and is now a museum.
He will then visit the Blue Mosque and conclude his day with a mass at Istanbul s small Catholic cathedral and an ecumenical prayer with the Patriarch Bartholomew.
On Sunday, he will attend but not take part in a Divine Liturgy in the Patriarchal church of St George. The two spiritual leaders are to release a joint declaration before the pope retires to his representative s residence for the meeting with local Catholics prior to flying back to Rome.