ISTANBUL – Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians demanded an end to the persecution of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq on Sunday and called for a "constructive dialogue" with Muslims, capping Francis' three-day visit to Turkey with a strong show of Christian unity in the face of suffering and violence.
Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I issued a joint declaration urging leaders in the region to intensify assistance to victims of the Islamic State group, and especially to allow Christians who have had a presence in the region for 2,000 years to remain on their native lands.
"The terrible situation of Christians and all those who are suffering in the Middle East calls not only for our constant prayer but also for an appropriate response on the part of the international community," they wrote.
Francis issued a second appeal later when he met with about 100 Iraqi and Syrian refugee children, telling them that he wanted to share in their suffering, offer his consolation and give them hope.
"I ask political leaders to always remember that the great majority of their people long for peace, even if at times they lack the strength and voice to demand it," he said. During the encounter, a young Iraqi girl told the pope of the suffering of Iraqi Christians forced to flee their homes.
Francis, who represents the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church, and Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, called for "constructive dialogue" with Islam "based on mutual respect and friendship."
"Inspired by common values and strengthened by genuine fraternal sentiments, Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of justice, peace and respect for the dignity and rights of every person, especially in those regions where they once lived for centuries in peaceful coexistence and now tragically suffer together the horrors of war," they said.
Francis' outreach to Muslims in the Muslim nation, and his comments about the Islamic assault on Christians next door, took center stage during his brief visit: His prayer in Istanbul's Sultan Ahmet mosque was replayed again and again on Turkish television in a sign that his gesture was greatly appreciated. And it seemed that the message was reciprocated: The grand mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran, who received him at the mosque, said he hoped that Francis' visit would "contribute to the world getting along well and living in peace."
Francis kicked off his final day in Turkey with a lengthy, two-hour liturgy alongside Barthlomew in the Orthodox Church of St. George, where incense mingled with hypnotic chants and prayers on an important feast day for the Orthodox Church.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054 over differences on the primacy of the papacy, and there was a time when patriarchs had to kiss popes' feet. The two churches have grown closer together in recent decades, such that at the end of a joint prayer service Saturday evening, Francis bowed to Bartholomew and asked for his blessing "for me and the Church of Rome," a remarkable display of papal deference to an Orthodox patriarch that underscored Francis' hope to end the schism.
In his remarks Sunday, Francis assured the Orthodox faithful gathered in St. George's that unity wouldn't mean sacrificing their rich liturgical or cultural patrimony or "signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation."
"I want to assure each one of you gathered here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith," he said.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, acknowledged the novelty in Francis' message. While experts from both churches continue to debate theological divisions between them, Francis and Bartholomew are "pushing with incredible strength toward union" through their frequent and warm personal contacts, Lombardi said.
"The theological dialogue and other aspects can go forward better or sooner if there is a strong attitude" on the part of the pope and patriarch, he said. "I cannot say that this is the solution to the problem, but this is surely a strong impulse."
Bartholomew, for his part, noted that Christians are being persecuted across the Mideast regardless of their particular confession.
"The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which church their victims belong to," he said. `'The unity that concerns us is regrettably already occurring in certain regions of the world through the blood of martyrs."