Pope Francis’ first visit to Turkey may have been an effort to reach out to the country’s Orthodox Christian population, but he found time to meet with the country’s Muslim and Jewish leaders as well. After a meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to discuss the worsening situation for religious minorities, particularly Christians, in Syria and Iraq, JTA reports that Frances visited the grand mufti of Istanbul at the city’s Sultan Ahmet mosque and met with Turkish Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva.
“Pope Francis came here on a bridge-building mission within the Christian world,” said Cefi Kamhi, a prominent member of Turkey’s Jewish community of 25,000, a member of the European Jewish Parliament and a former lawmaker. “It’s natural that he should also reach out to strengthen ties to other faith groups, and I think he succeeded in doing this.”
Francis has put a premium on his faith-based international visits, emphasizing religious similarities and common ground among his hosts, particularly in turbulent political climates. While in Israel this spring, he focused on prayer, not politics, as the country was careening toward crisis. He later invited Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a prayer session as tensions between the two populations simmered.
Francis’ interest in—and commitment to—the Jewish community is something he developed long before he became pope, back when he was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. His close friend was Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. Skorka was on hand to guide the pope on his trip to Israel in May. This summer, Francis marked the anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed and 300 more were injured.
Francis’ visit with Haleva, a symbol of outreach to Turkey’s Jewish community, comes just a week after a governor of the Turkish province of Edirne threatened to turn a historic synagogue into a museum.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.