Pope offers peace token in meeting with Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Pope Francis on Monday while police enforced a protest ban in central Rome as feelings ran high over Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish militia inside Syria.

During the 50-minute meeting, Pope Francis gave Erdogan a medallion embossed with an angel strangling a “demon of war” — a symbol of peace and justice.

Meanwhile, a small Kurdish-led protest clashed with riot police not far from the Vatican. Two people were arrested.

Erdogan’s visit, the first by a Turkish leader in nearly 60 years, saw the two leaders discuss Turkey, refugees and the situation in the Middle East “with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem,” the Vatican said.

The talks also highlighted “the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law,” a statement added.

Before Erdogan’s arrival late Sunday, the Italian authorities had deployed 3,500 police and imposed a 24-hour ban on demonstrations.

But that didn’t stop a sit-in protest by some 30 people, organised by a Kurdish association in Italy.

Turkey on January 20 launched its “Olive Branch” operation against Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which Ankara sees as a terror group and a threat to Turkish territory.

The Turkish army and allied Ankara-backed Syrian rebel forces are seeking to oust the YPG from its western border stronghold of Afrin but the operation has faced fierce resistance.

“In Afrin, a new crime against humanity is under way,” the Kurdish association said.

“Every family has lost two or three children, but what is the fault of the Kurds? Is this the reward for fighting against Daesh? (using another term for the group Islamic State),” said Rasho Mohmad, a Syrian Kurd.

Mohmad said the pope shouldn’t meet Erdogan, who he labelled “a murderer”.

Another protester Alessio Arconso, also a Kurd, said: “It’s a duty to be here today, Erdogan has become more than a dictator.”

Since a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016, some 55,000 people have been arrested and 140,000 public sector workers sacked or suspended.

– ‘Angel of peace’ –

The pope, who has railed against the horrors of war and weapons of mass destruction, presented Erdogan the medallion with “an angel of peace strangling the demon of war”.

“It’s a symbol of a world based on peace and justice,” the pontiff said, according to two journalists present during the meeting.

Erdogan for his part was expected to thank the pope for opposing the decision by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“We are both in favour of the status quo and we have the will to protect it,” Erdogan said in an interview published Sunday.

Erdogan and the pope also stressed the importance of jointly combating “xenophobia and Islamophobia” and not conflating “religions with terrorism,” sources said according to Turkish media.

– Armenian ‘genocide’ spat –

Erdogan’s flying visit to Italy later included a lunch with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella, who spoke of a “frank and respectful” meeting, including discussions on Turkey’s relationship with the EU.

Pope Francis and Erdogan have had a somewhat mixed relationships

The pope, a strong proponent of inter-faith dialogue, visited Turkey in November 2014, holding talks with Erdogan, a devout Muslim.

While in Istanbul the pope acknowledged that current global crises had made Muslims vulnerable to being stigmatised and denounced those who said “all Muslims are terrorists”.

But relations were not so cordial in June 2016 when the pope, during a visit to Armenia, referred to the 1915-17 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman forces as “genocide”.

The Vatican was then forced to refute claims from Turkey that Pope Francis had showed a “mentality of the Crusades” over his use of the term.

Turkey — the Ottoman Empire’s successor state — argues that it was a collective tragedy in which both Turks and Armenians died.

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