12/02/2014, 00.00
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Pope Francis in Turkey and his "behind the scenes" meetings

by Mavi Zambak
Amid the solemn moments with political and religious leaders, Francis found time to meet ordinary people, those living on the "edges", the sick, people like Middle Eastern refugees, members of Turkey's tiny Christian communities, and the bed-ridden Armenian patriarch. For Turkish Christians and Muslims, he is an authoritative but approachable figure, a model for politicians.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - For three days, Turkey was in the world's spotlight, all eyes were on the country because of the Argentine pope's visit, zooming on it and its involvement in Francis' apostolic trip: national and international TV networks, radio, and newspapers followed the pope's every movement, meeting and speech.

Silence has now returned and everything seems to have resumed its normal course. Nothing seems to have changed. However, the image they had of this pontiff and his new vision of "authority" found confirmation and validation.

The idea that an authoritative figure could also be a regular guy left a major impression. Coming across as someone who refused the privileges of his social status in order to show his superiority, he did not stand behind divisive protective barriers and security perimeters. Instead, everyone felt his closeness.

This is exactly what Christians and non-Christians saw, namely his capacity to become close, reach out and meet others, as they are, without fences. Indeed, what defined his trip- according to comments heard in the streets, on public transport and in homes - was his determination to "become close" to others.

The trip that led the pope from Ankara to Istanbul, addressing Muslims in the first leg, and the Catholic Church and its sister Orthodox Churches in the second, was marked by a single feature, namely a sense of closeness that strengthened the confidence and good will toward this man of God.

By reaching out, in the sign of peace and respect, approaching first, he brought everyone a bit closer: Catholics to the Orthodox and the Armenians; Christians to Muslims; Turks to foreigners.

Condemning violence and intolerance, his outstretched hand was confidently open to shake that of Turkey's civil authorities, that of Islamic leaders, that of his brother Bartholomew I, to whom he asked for a blessing bowing his head, that of the many Christians who wanted to touch him, kiss him, or even just see him, and that of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

People took note of his silent prayer of worship in the Blue Mosque. They did the same when he bowed to Bartholomew, requested his blessing and prayed with him. "Behind the scenes", his gestures were even more remarked, as was his ability to find time out of his already busy schedule to be close to ordinary people, those from the edges of existence.

In Ankara, at the end of a day full of meetings with Turkey's top political and religious leaders, he met with a small group of Christians, as invisible in the bureaucratic heart of the Turkish Republic as a needle in the haystack - and fellow Jesuits, to exchange a few words of friendship, solidarity and brotherhood in a relaxed family atmosphere.

In Istanbul, he was greeted by about 50 representatives of local Catholic (Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean) communities, at the Apostolic Nunciature, where Mgr Roncalli lived and worked during his stay in Constantinople between 1935 and 1944.

In Istanbul's Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, on the last leg of his trip, Pope Francis met with about a hundred young refugees who currently being helped by the Salesian Oratory of the Sublime Porte.

A day earlier, Francis expressed his appreciation to the Turkish government and recognised its efforts towards refugees, many of whom from conflict zones. On that occasion, he issued a message of peace and spoke about the war and the violence that have caused bloodshed for too many years in the Middle East.

He did not however limit himself to mere declarations. Instead, he showed his closeness to those forced to leave their land, house, everything, because of the heinous madness of fanaticism and fundamentalism.

"I have greatly desired to meet with you, youth from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East and Africa," said the pontiff, who was eager to meet these young people. "You represent hundreds of your peers, many of whom are exiles and refugees who are helped every day by the Salesians. I wish to assure you that I share your sufferings; I hope my visit, by the grace of God, may offer you some consolation in your difficult situation. Yours is the sad consequence of brutal conflicts and war, which are always evils and which never solve problems. Rather, they only create new ones.

"Refugees, such as yourselves," he went on to say, "often find themselves deprived, sometimes for long periods, of basic needs such as a dignified home, healthcare, education and work. They have had to abandon not only their material possessions, but above all their freedom, closeness to family, their homeland and cultural traditions. The degrading conditions in which so many refugees are forced to live are intolerable! For this reason, we must do everything possible to eradicate the causes of this situation. I appeal for greater international cooperation to resolve the conflicts that are causing bloodshed in your homelands, to counter the other causes which are driving people to leave their home countries, and to improve conditions so that people may remain or return home. I encourage all who are working generously and steadfastly for justice and peace not to lose heart. I ask political leaders to remember always that the great majority of their people long for peace, even if at times they lack the strength and voice to demand it."

"Dear young people, do not be discouraged," he added. "With the help of God, continue to hope in a better future, despite the difficulties and obstacles which you are currently facing. The Catholic Church is with you, including through the invaluable work of the Salesians. The Church, in addition to other forms of help, also offers you the opportunity to see to your education and training. Remember always that God does not forget any of his children, and that those who are the smallest and who suffer the most are closest to the Father's heart.

Before leaving for Rome, the pope paid a visit to Mesrob II Mutafyan, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople who has been seriously ill for several years and is currently staying at Istanbul's St Saviour Armenian Hospital. The Holy Father prayed for him during Mass in Istanbul Cathedral.

Avoiding the pitfalls of criticism and complaint, Francis' humility towards those who consider themselves the great of the earth, and his tenderness and closeness to the humble, weak and forgotten, have moved ordinary Turks, Christian and Muslim. They have bravely shown the way towards brotherhood, effective dialogue, harmony and peace. Not as a strategy to score ratings, but as the implementation of the Gospel's logic. The Turks saw this.

A strong and self-confident man, one who knows how to impose himself and keep his distance, denies fragility and closeness, divides humans, and poisons the world. In a world where everyone, but especially the powerful, build walls for security and defence, perched behind barriers, Francis has torn down barriers, biases and clichés, showing through his choices and actions who can really talk the talk without losing his identity, daring to go beyond himself and leave his world to give others a chance to be a good neighbour.

The many bridges that the pontiff built during his visit to Turkey is his gift. By getting personally involved, he neither showed nor caused fear. Instead, he was approachable and created unity. By bearing witness to dialogue, he showed that communion is possible for everyone and that peace could be close at hand.

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