ANKARA (Reuters) - Pope Francis said on Friday fighting hunger and poverty, rather than military intervention alone, were key to stopping Islamist militants carrying out “barbaric violence” in Syria and Iraq.
In a speech to Turkey’s top cleric, Francis said “an extremist and fundamentalist group” had subjected entire communities in Turkey’s southern neighbors to “barbaric violence simply because of their ethnic and religious identity.”
Islamic State insurgents have persecuted Shi’ite Muslims, Christians and others who do not share their ultra-radical brand of Sunni Islam as they carved a self-declared caliphate out of swathes of Syria and Iraq.
After meeting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan the pope said it was lawful to stop an unjust aggressor but urged a concerted commitment to devote resources “not to weaponry, but to the other noble battles worthy of man — the fight against hunger and sickness”.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics called for inter-religious dialogue to end of all forms of fundamentalism and terrorism, and stressed the importance of freedom of religion and of expression.
“It is essential that all citizens - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties,” he said.
Francis faces a delicate mission in Turkey, a majority Muslim but constitutionally secular state, in strengthening ties with religious leaders while condemning violence against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
Turkey is sheltering nearly 2 million refugees from Syria, thousands of Christians among them. Christians made up around 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million population before its civil war began in 2011, while Iraq’s Christian population has fallen by nearly 70 percent since the start of its 2003 war.
Turkey’s own Christian population has dwindled over the past century, with decades of violence, economic and political pressure forcing most Christians to leave after World War One and the emergence of the post-Ottoman Turkish state. [ID:nL6N0LV1RB]
Minority groups in Turkey fear Erdogan’s roots in Islamist politics and his distrust of the West mean the country is moving in an ever less tolerant direction.
For his part Erdogan called for measures to prevent “escalating racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in the West,” adding “the racist perception which associates Islam with terrorism deeply hurts billions of Muslims around the world”.
Francis travels to Istanbul on Saturday to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, as part of an effort to forge closer ties between the ancient western and eastern wings of Christianity.
Bartholomew’s seat remains in Istanbul, a vestige of the Byzantine Empire, even as his flock in Turkey has dwindled to less than 3,000 among a population of 75 million Muslims.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Ankara, Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Philip Pullella; Editing by Jon Boyle