ISTANBUL - Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church is concluding a three-day visit to Turkey in Istanbul, meeting with the head of the Orthodox Christian Church. The two religious leaders called for an end to violent persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria and more dialogue with Muslims.
On the final day of his visit to Turkey, Pope Francis celebrated Saint Andrew's Day at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul. The pope sat opposite Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who heads the 250 million strong Orthodox Church.
The two leaders signed a joint declaration to support Christians in the Middle East and prevent Christianity from being driven out the region. The declaration called on regional leaders and the wider international community to do more to end what it called the terrible situation of Christians.
The pope met with Christian refugees during his time in Istanbul. Throughout his three day visit, the pope highlighted the ongoing persecution of Christians and other minorities in the region, especially in countries like Syria and Iraq. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew said that persecution was giving added impetus to their reunification efforts.
Additionally, the two prelates urged all parties in the Ukraine conflict to "pursue a path of dialogue and of respect for international law."
An Orthodox Christian welcomed the pope’s visit and steps towards ending the churches' centuries-long schism.
"Everybody has his belief in one God does not sense whether it's Catholic, or Christian Orthodox. For me this is just only one belief, it's just a God. For everybody the coming of the pope a big step. In my opinion he is one of most important popes as a leader of a Catholic Church," he said.
During a homily to the Orthodox faithful, the pope said his goal was full unity, but he said such unity would not mean assimilation or a loss of their traditions.
The Roman Catholic pope and the Orthodox patriarch are believed to have already built up a good working relationship. The Istanbul meeting is their second in less than a year and it was the patriarch’s invitation that brought the pope to Turkey.
Separately, Pope Francis called on the world's Muslim leaders to condemn terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, saying that doing so would help dispel a wrongful stereotype held by those in the West who equate the two.
The pontiff made the statement to reporters aboard his plane, after departing Turkey. He referred to the Quran - the central religious text of Islam - as "a prophetic book of peace," and said he understands why Muslims are offended by those who link their religion to terrorism.
He said he conveyed the same message to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a three-day visit.
Francis - the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics - is the fourth pope to visit Turkey, after similar trips by Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.