Pope Francis urges religious tolerance on rare Turkey visit
Willie Grace | 11/28/2014, 12:06 p.m. | Updated on 11/28/2014, 12:06 p.m.
ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- Pope Francis called Friday for religious tolerance and dialogue to counter extremism in the Middle East as he met with Turkey's leaders on the first day of a rare papal visit to the predominantly Muslim country.
Speaking in Ankara alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Pope called on people of all faiths to show respect for human life, dignity and religious freedom.
"Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers," he said.
Terrorist violence shows no sign of abating in Iraq and Syria, with grave persecution against Christians and the Yazidi minority in particular, Francis said.
"Hundreds of thousands of persons have been forced to abandon their homes and countries in order to survive and remain faithful to their religious beliefs," he said.
"Turkey, which has generously welcomed a great number of refugees, is directly affected by this tragic situation on its borders; the international community has the moral obligation to assist Turkey in taking care of these refugees."
At the same time, Francis said, Turkey has a "great responsibility," because of its history and location bridging East and West, to help bring different communities together and promote the path to peace.
Erdogan criticizes Islamophobia
In his address, Erdogan highlighted what he said was a disturbing trend of increased racism and Islamophobia in the West, at the same time as Islamist extremism wracks parts of the Middle East.
The world must come together if it wants to combat terrorism, he said.
The Turkish leader also suggested the West should not turn a blind eye to abuses committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while it pursues ISIS.
The timing of the Pope's visit, in this period of unrest, is extremely significant, Erdogan added, voicing hope that it would lead to an "auspicious era" of improved relations in the world.
Francis also met with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and will hold talks with the head of the country's religious affairs directorate, Mehmet Gormez.
On his first trip to Turkey as pontiff, Francis will also spend time with the head of the Orthodox Church.
The three-day visit, which may be one of the most challenging of his papacy, is intended to strengthen bridges, not only between sister churches but also across religious divides.
It comes at a time when Christians -- as well as other minorities and many Muslims -- are coming under increasing pressure amid worsening conflict in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity.
The Pope's first stop in Ankara was at the Ataturk Mausoleum, tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkish republic and its first president, where he laid a wreath.
He will spend Saturday and Sunday in Istanbul at the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians.
Bartholomew has asked the Pope to take part in celebrations marking the feast of St. Andrew, founder of the Eastern Church and the older brother of St. Peter.