There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (Al Quran 2:257)
Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians have condemned the treatment of many Christians in the Middle East.
In a joint declaration, the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew I said they could not resign themselves to a “Middle East without Christians”.
On a three-day visit to Turkey, the pontiff discussed divisions between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
In Istanbul, he and the patriarch also called for peace in Ukraine.
Patriarch Bartholomew is the spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, whose Church broke with Rome in 1054 in a schism that divided the Christian world.
Constantinople, as the modern Turkish city of Istanbul was once known, was the centre of Orthodox Christianity until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
Only around 120,000 Christians remain in Turkey, where the vast majority of the 80 million citizens are Muslims.
Pope Francis also called for an interfaith dialogue with Muslims to counter fanaticism and fundamentalism when he visited the Turkish capital, Ankara.
Christians have been targeted by Muslim hardliners in Iraq and Syria in recent years, with a violent campaign of persecution by Islamic State militants this summer when they captured the Iraqi city of Mosul.
In their joint declaration, the two Church leaders said: “We express our common concern for the current situation in Iraq, Syria and the whole Middle East…
“Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes. It even seems that the value of human life has been lost, that the human person no longer matters and may be sacrificed to other interests. And, tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many.”
The violent conflict in Ukraine this year has accentuated differences between its large Orthodox and Catholic communities.
The Pope and the patriarch said: “We pray for peace in Ukraine, a country of ancient Christian tradition, while we call upon all parties involved to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law in order to bring an end to the conflict and allow all Ukrainians to live in harmony.”
As his visit draws to a close, Pope Francis is also due to meet Turkey’s chief rabbi, whose flock has diminished to just 17,000 people.