Erdogan and the pontiff “spoke about the situation in Turkey, the condition of the Catholic community, efforts to accommodate refugees and the challenges linked to this,” the Vatican said in a statement.
VATICAN CITY — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Pope Francis for “cordial” private talks on Monday, marking the first visit to the Vatican by a Turkish head of state since 1959.
Erdogan and the pontiff “spoke about the situation in Turkey, the condition of the Catholic community, efforts to accommodate refugees and the challenges linked to this,” the Vatican said in a statement after the audience.
“Attention then turned to the situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem,” it added.
Despite previous disagreements, the two leaders found common ground on Jerusalem after the US unilaterally recognized the city as the capital of Israel.
“The status of Jerusalem is a central issue for both Muslims and Christians; both the pope and myself are committed to protecting the status quo,” said Erdogan in an interview published by Italian newspaper La Stampa on Sunday.
“No nation in the world has a right to take unilateral steps on a city which is dear to billions of people, ignoring international laws.”
‘Angel of peace’ as a gift for Erdogan
Previously, it was speculated that the pope and Erdogan would also discuss the situation in Syria during the private portion of the meet. In a controversial move last month,Turkey launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in Afrin near the Turkish border.
Pope Francis also presented Erdogan with a bronze medallion depicting an angel embracing the Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres and defending them from a dragon.
“This is the angel of peace who strangles the demon of war,” the pope told Erdogan. “(It is) a symbol of a world based on peace and justice.”
At the end of the meet, Erdogan said he hoped that pope would keep him in his prayers.
‘No to Turkey’
Anti-Erdogan demonstrators took to the streets of Rome during the visit, with at least one person injured and two arrested in scuffles with the security forces.
Police in riot gear blocked around 150 protesters who tried to get closer to the Vatican palace complex.
“I am surprised the pope is willing to meet with a person like that, a dictator, an assassin, with blood on his hands,” Said Durson, who was among the demonstrators, said.
“In Afrin, a new crime against humanity is underway,” said a Kurdish association based in Italy.
Earlier, Italian police said 3,500 officers had been deployed for Erdogan’s visit after Kurdish groups threatened mass protests against Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurdish forces. Rome also issued a 24-hour ban on demonstrations.
However, sympathizers of the Kurdish cause weren’t the only ones to criticize the Turkish president’s visit.
The far-right Brothers of Italy party decried his visit in a statement that warned against the “Islamization of Europe,” a notion often touted by anti-migrant parties across the continent.
Brothers of Italy President Giorgia Meloni said the Italian people wanted to send a message: “No to Turkey in Europe,” referring to Ankara’s EU accession bid. On Sunday, Erdogan criticized European leaders for blocking Turkey’s attempt to join the EU. The Turkish president’s office also said Erdogan would discuss Islamophobia with the pope.
Monday’s meeting at the Vatican was the second time between the two men. In November 2014, Pope Francis traveled to Turkey to hold talks with Erdogan, during which he denounced the notion that “all Muslims are terrorists.”
But they clashed two years later, when the pope described the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces during World War I as “genocide.” Turkey responded by accusing Francis of spreading “lies and slander” and upholding a “mentality of the crusades.”
Erdogan and Turkish officials have previously denounced European criticism of Turkey, most notably on human rights, saying it amounts to Islamophobia. — dpa, AFP