Dealing with the Devil: Pope Francis, Erdogan, and Jerusalem

The sudden explosion of hostilities between Iran and Israel points to the seemingly permanent instability of the Middle East – which makes the recent 50-minute meeting between Pope Francis and Turkish President Erdogan all the more disturbing. Why would the Pope appear so relaxed, collegial and accepting of one of the most volatile leaders of our day? Why did he let stand Erdogan’s claim that the two of them see eye to eye about Jerusalem?

Ostensibly, this new strange alliance grew out of President Trump’s recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Neither of these two leaders is a friend of Donald Trump.  But Erdogan is a supporter of Hamas and a frequent demonizer of the Jewish State. Pope Francis is not.

Trump’s Jerusalem announcement simply does not suffice to explain this new apparent geopolitical partnership. The US President made clear that the final map of Jerusalem would be left to Israel and the Palestinians to figure out. He did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of the city. Indeed, the reaction of the Arab world was generally muted. Calls for another Intifada fell on deaf ears.

So why would the Pope, in effect, encourage a leader who constantly strives to ignite the flickering embers of Palestinian violence in the crucible of faiths that is Jerusalem?

Does the Pontiff believe that weakening Israel’s control of the holy places, in place since 1967, would strengthen Christendom? In all those decades, Israel has been a protector of religious freedoms. It is her police who are called in by disputing Christian denominations to restore peace when physical violence breaks out between factions. In 2018, the Church bells ring throughout the Holy City and the Vatican’s flag flies atop its properties across all sectors of Jerusalem, something that was impossible to conceive of when the Ottoman Empire was in charge. And while the Ottomans were not particularly into religious fanaticism, Erdogan has been pushing Turkey– once the role model of a Muslim secular state– down the road towards extreme Islamization.  Does this pope believe that Christian interests will be safer with an Islamist state with which Israel’s enemies want to replace Israel?

Hard to believe when the Pope daily reads reports on the fate of the shrinking presence of threatened Christian minorities in many Arab and Muslim countries, where Christians face discrimination, persecution, and even death.

Could it be about taxes? Israel has attempted to tax the property of churches that is not used for religious purposes, and Rome is not happy about that. But Israel is hardly alone. The same conflict has taken place in Italy, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montreal. In fact, taxation in the United States of church-owned property that does not serve a religious function is the rule, not the exception.

Getting cozy with the tyrannical Erdogan is a strange way to jockey for a tax break for the Vatican.

Perhaps the Pope was blind-sided by the wily Turkish leader.  No. Even before their meeting, Erdogan announced that the two of them were of a common mind regarding Jerusalem. If the Pope was walking into a trap, he could have politely but firmly used the meeting to create some distance between the two.

This never happened.

The ugliest possibility is that the Vatican has signaled a shift from its policies of the last decades. There are conservative elements in the Vatican who are unhappy over the rapprochement with the Jews that was engineered by the last few popes. These forces would lose no sleep if the current occupant of the Throne of St. Peter will jeopardize that relationship.

There are those in the Church hierarchy who would argue that the Vatican stands more to gain by currying favor with Muslims. Let Jewish concerns be damned; Israel won’t turn around and persecute the Christian faithful, while Muslims, they fear, are more likely to do just that.  It is difficult to fathom, however, that any Church leader could think that such an approach would do anything but hasten and seal Christian dhimmitude in a Middle East.

Sometimes, even the inscrutable ways of G-d make more sense than the decisions of those who speak in His name. Aquinas, Maimonides, and Ibn Rushd together would not be able to make sense out of the Pope’s dangerous Middle East move. Getting in bed with the Erdogan will not serve the Divine. It will only strengthen the devil.

This post was co-authored by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

About the Author
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Associate Dean and Global Director of its Ed Snider Social Action Institute