Pope Francis Begins Turkey Visit
TEHRAN (Tasnim) - Pope Francis began his first visit to Turkey in a trip aimed at building bridges with Islam and supporting the Christian minorities of the Middle East.
On Friday, Francis will spend the first of three days in Turkey in the capital Ankara, notably holding a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his newly constructed presidential palace.
Francis is to travel to Istanbul on Saturday and Sunday, visiting key sites of the city's Byzantine and Ottoman heritage as well as meeting the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
On Saturday Francis is to visit Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine-era church that was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and now serves as a museum, and the Ottoman-era Sultan Ahmet mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque.
The Christian community in Turkey is tiny - just 80,000 in a country 75 million Muslims - but also extremely mixed, consisting of Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Franco-Levantines, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans.
Francis, 77, is expected to raise his concern about the plight of Christian communities throughout the Middle East amid the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Some 2,700 police are set to supervise his visit in Ankara, a number that will rise to 7,000 in Istanbul.
There have also been calls on Francis not to meet Erdogan at his presidential palace, which is seen by critics as an authoritarian extravagence with 1,000 rooms and cost at least $615m to build.
But the Vatican has refused to be drawn into the polemic, saying it is merely accepting the invitation by the hosts for Francis, who will be by far the most important visitor so far at the palace.