Istanbul (AsiaNews) - What Church is waiting for Francis in Turkey? One that is smaller than the smallest of seeds, a small and varied Christian community that is getting smaller and smaller: about 120,000 Christians, or 0.15 per cent, living scattered in tiny communities amid 76 million people. This small and very diverse group of Christians includes Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics as well as Armenians, Syriacs and Chaldeans.
Yet, in recent years, the face of the Catholic community has been changing considerably. Whilst the number of indigenous Christians is decreasing more and more - the offspring of the last ones go to Europe, America or Australia - a large number of immigrants are coming from the Philippines, from various African countries and also from the Middle East, like the thousands of refugees displaced from northern Iraq, Mosul, and Syria.
Parish communities have therefore acquired a colourful, young, and vibrant face but one that is also extremely in need of new spiritual and material care.
"Yes, now these are the sheep of the flock entrusted to me," said Mgr Louis Pelâtre, apostolic vicar to Istanbul, bishop of this cosmopolitan city for more than 20 years, "and I have to take this into account in the regular pastoral ministry, and be very careful in how I respond to the new demands of the times."
"The situation of the Church has not only changed within, where praying in Turkish and having a liturgy closer to the local culture have become a fact, but relations with the state have also evolved in a positive direction, although this does not mean that things will change as quickly as we would like."
"As [Pope] Roncalli said, we need patience, lots of patience. As I constantly take my inspiration from reading his Journal of a Soul, there are some positive signs. For example, we were recently invited - we six Catholic bishops in Turkey - to take part in the consultations in parliament for the new Constitution. This is a significant and surprising gesture, unthinkable just a few years ago."
There are however some burning issues, such as Church property. "Our greatest difficulties concern legal issues rather than relations with the local population, which are good," the bishop explained. "Legally in fact, the Catholic Church does not exist in Turkey. In everyday life, this does not mean any particular problems for ordinary worshippers; however, it does make things difficult for the Church as an institution."
In Turkey, despite a growing Islamisation, the state is still secular. Religious schools, hospitals and charitable works are not allowed. However, the Church, officially recognised as a place of worship, stands as a place of reference for explicit faith, "God's house", where everyone can feel welcome.
The Church's presence is realised by being accessible, open to people who knock on the door, listening to their faith and picking up the "fragments" of God buried in their lives, in the light of the exchange with the Muslim faith, in consoling and bearing the sufferings of body and spirit. In such a "container" that is the sacred building, people of every social status, age, creed and ethnicity search for their identity and for some meaning to their existence.
Local Christians are well aware how important it is to have a point of reference and therefore have a strong bond with the Church, both as an institution and as a building, and even more as a community of living stones. It is a precious treasure to build and safeguard, a womb that can embrace anyone.
In Turkey, the Church's presence is so limited that where it can be found it immediately becomes a place where every meeting - with tourists, atheists, believers, Christians or Muslims - becomes a meeting with the 'Other', a meeting of dialogue, friendship, and faith.
An increasing number of people knock on church doors to find comfort, support, serious discussion, and a desire to build relationships and deepen their faith. When this happens, it does not matter if one is Catholic or Orthodox, a follower of the Latin or Armenian rite.
Precisely for this reason, Christians in Turkey immediately felt great affinity and affection for Pope Francis, perceiving his desire to break down walls and, on the basis of a show of love for one another, bear all the pain of today's humanity.
People like this pope because he cares about the "many Christians who are persecuted," and because in Jerusalem, in an amiable manner, said that "When Christians of different confessions suffer together, side by side, and assist one another with fraternal charity, there is born an ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood, which proves particularly powerful not only for those situations in which it occurs, but also, by virtue of the communion of the saints, for the whole Church as well. Those who kill, persecute Christians out of hatred, do not ask if they are Orthodox or Catholics: they are Christians. The blood of Christians is the same."
Now they are waiting for him with a lot of trepidation and joy. Everyone would like to see him, touch him, kiss him, make him feel their affection and esteem, be blessed by him as they see happening in other parts of the world. But, for security reasons, there will be no huge crowd, no one lining up the roadside for his motorcade.
Sadly, only a select few will be able to attend the Mass the pope will preside at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul on the afternoon of Saturday, 29 November. Only a small group will meet him during the interritual celebration of the different traditions of the Catholic Church, in the presence of representatives of the Eastern and Protestant Churches.
However, all Christians scattered throughout Turkey's territory are waiting to hear him say words that will comfort them and give them hope and courage. They hope that this does not remain just a diplomatic trip and that the pope through his visit will make them feel the close presence of the caring Father who does not forget his children, however small, poor and insignificant they may be in the eyes of the world, thus confirming them in their faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord of history and Saviour of the world. (MZ)