In Depth

Pope Francis’s new frontiers: now he’s off to Turkey

His increasingly anxious minders cannot forget that it was a Turk who tried to assassinate John Paul II

Rome - Pope Francis has taken his gloves off. Condemning Islamic State butchers one day and boxing the ears of European Union leaders the next, Francis’s populist global defence of the downtrodden is winning the battle for hearts and minds as no Pope has in years.

This week has seen the popular Argentinian-born pontiff’s most daring foray into foreign policy yet. 

On Monday he met Egypt’s controversial president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an iron-fisted army general who the West hopes will help ensure more security in the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he delivered a fatherly rebuke on the perils of an institution becoming too detached from the people it is supposed to serve.

“In recent years, as the EU has expanded, there has been growing mistrust on the part of citizens towards institutions considered to be aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful,” he told MEPs.

“The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.”

If that sounds like he was ready to sign up to Ukip (Nigel Farage was among the MEPs there), his comments on immigration quickly knocked that notion on the head.

"There needs to be a united response to the question of migration,” he said. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery. The boats landing on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance."

Today he heads to Turkey, a geopolitical and religious lynchpin between Christianity and Islam, with conflicts raging on its borders with two nations - Syria and Iraq. 

The Pope is thought to be pushing to visit the risky frontier, but his minders are unlikely to allow it due to security concerns. Jihadists have made general threats in recent weeks and no one at the Vatican can forget that the man who in 1980 tried to assassinate John Paul II in Rome was a Turk. 

Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with regional and political leaders in Ankara to discuss religious tolerance and renewed Christian-Muslim dialogue, then visit cultural landmarks in Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque.  

Vatican insiders predict he will repeat the call he made in Strasbourg for Europe to do more for the rising number of war refugees and migrants, many of whom are Muslim.  

Francis’s blunt talk has made him wildly popular outside the Vatican, but created some enemies within. That’s where he is said to count on the quiet guidance of his predecessor – Benedict XVI – who has plenty of experience of Vatican back-stabbing and plots. 

But those tasked with literally protecting him – the Swiss Guard and his Gendarmerie security detail - have been on edge ever since his arrival, bending over backwards to adapt to his unconventional choices.

He insists on living in a small apartment in the Santa Marta hostel, separated from greater Rome by a single wall at the edge of Vatican City, as opposed to the more easily defended and spacious papal apartment.  

In public, he insists on riding open air (“You ride in the bullet-proof car”, he reportedly told his detail) and hates being barricaded from the people. (While visiting a church in the working class outskirts of Rome, I was surprised to see him step out of a modest blue Renault hatchback.) 

Working the crowds in St Peter’s Square, he takes babies in his arms, gives hugs and even once sipped mate from a cup handed to him.  He is rumoured to have taken night-time walks through Rome to give charity to the poor, as he once did in the slums of Buenos Aires.  

But there are rising security concerns about his trips abroad. The Corriere della Sera’s political columnist Massimo Franco related recently how, on a flight back to Italy from Korea in August, the pontiff requested an unscheduled stopover in Kurdistan to draw attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians. Much to the Pope’s disappointment, it was deemed too risky by the secret service.  

Francis’s mix of faith and political savvy make him admirably fearless, entirely loveable, and a total nightmare if you’re one of his bodyguards.

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