Pope to visit Turkey as Mideast Christians flee ISIS persecution

Pope Francis (L), flanked by Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin (R), leads a consistory for the beatification of Giuseppe Vaz and Maria Cristina dell'Immacolata Concezione in the Synod Hall at the Vatican on Oct. 20, 2014. (File Photo: AFP)

Pope Francis will travel to Turkey next month, the Vatican said on Tuesday, his first visit to the predominantly Muslim country which has become a refuge for Christians fleeing persecution by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS).

During his three-day visit, the pope will meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He will also meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the Orthodox churches that make up the second-largest Christian church family after Roman Catholicism.

“The Holy Father will visit Ankara and Istanbul from Nov. 28 to 30,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement.

ISIS militants have declared a “caliphate” in the territories they control in Syria and Iraq and have killed or driven out large numbers of Christians, Shiite Muslims and others who do not subscribe to their hardline version of Sunni Islam.

Many have fled to Turkey, along with tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds who left as ISIS forces seized dozens of their villages close to the border, where fighting continues.

A U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes on the militants near the Syrian border town of Kobane which is being defended by Kurdish fighters. Turkey said earlier on Monday it would facilitate passage of Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in Kobane.

On Monday, Francis told cardinals at the Vatican that ISIS had reached levels of terrorism “previously unimaginable.”

“Many of our brothers are persecuted and were forced to leave their homes ... It seems that awareness of the value of human life has been lost, that people do not count and can be sacrificed for other interests,” he said.

The Turkey trip would be Francis’s third to a mainly Muslim nation after Jordan and Albania.

Last Update: 14:47 KSA 17:47 - GMT 14:47