PRAYER ALERT: On November 29, while Pope Francis was visiting Turkey, an ISIS suicide bomber drove an armored vehicle from Turkey into Kobani, Syria. It was the first time that ISIS had launched an assault from Turkey. It started a series of attacks which killed eight Kurds and 17 jihadis. On the next day the pope and Orthodox Church Patriarch Bartholomew I met at the Church of St. George in Istanbul and issued a joint statement.
They demanded an end to ISIS attacks. They called for a “constructive dialogue” and “mutual respect and friendship” with more peaceable proponents of Islam. Pope Francis went on to call ISIS’ “barbaric violence” in Syria and Iraq “a profoundly grave sin against God.” He called for regional leaders to give greater assistance to ISIS’ victims. He thanked Turkey for helping victims and sheltering 1.6 million refugees. Patriarch Bartholomew noted that ISIS and other militant Muslims in the Middle East are persecuting Christians of all persuasions, who have had a presence there for 2000 years. “The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which church their victims belong to,” he said.
The pope and Orthodox Church together represent 1.5 billion Christians. Catholics number 1.2 billion, and Orthodox Christians 300 million. But they have been divided since the East-West Schism of A.D. 1054. That was when the pope and Orthodox church patriarch both claimed primacy over the world’s Christians. Theological disputes over the exact place of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity and kind of bread used in communion further deepened the split. And eastern Christians’ claim that Constantinople was the center of Christianity was rejected by Rome.
The Great Schism made eastern Christians more vulnerable to the continual onslaughts of Islam. Constantinople itself was conquered by Muslims in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. Today there are only about 46,000 Catholics in all of Turkey and 94,000 Orthodox. Yet Istanbul continues to be the seat of the top patriarch of the Orthodox church.
So it was significant that the pope and Orthdox church patriarch met in former Constantinople. Pope Francis went so far as to bow before the patriarch and ask him “to bless me and the church of Rome.” Both are pushing to end the schism. But Pope Francis assured the Orthodox faithful that unity would not mean the denial of their heritages. Nor would it “signify the submission of one to the other, or assimiliation.” It remains to be seen what form that this unity will take.
Will political leaders too, be willing to set aside age-old differences in the face of a common enemy in ISIS? The day that the pope left Turkey, Russian President Putin arrived to meet with Turkey’s President Erdogan…
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