WASHINGTON - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has teamed up with an unusual partner as he pursues his campaign to condemn the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and boost his image as the unofficial leader of the Muslim world ahead of key elections: Pope Francis.
During a February 5 visit to the Vatican, the first by a Turkish head of state since 1959, Erdogan repeated his criticism of the US Jerusalem decision. Francis agreed with him, Erdogan said after meeting the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
“I saw that Pope Francis is determined on this issue,” Erdogan said. Just like Turkey, the pope was in favour of keeping Jerusalem’s status as a city that is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, the president added. “He also says the step taken by the United States was wrong.”
Following US President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation in December, Pope Francis joined an international chorus of criticism and threw his weight behind a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A statement released by the Vatican after the pope’s meeting with Erdogan confirmed that Francis and the Turkish president talked about “the situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue and negotiation, with respect for human rights and international law.”
In an apparent bid to boost his standing in the Muslim world, Erdogan drew attention to Turkey’s role as holder of the rotating presidency of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim countries.
“I told him: ‘You are the spiritual leader of the Catholic world with its 1.2 billion people, and I am the term president of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation with 1.7 billion people. We must work together to preserve the status of Jerusalem,’” Erdogan said about his discussions with Francis.
Erdogan said the pope should remind Catholics of the importance of the Jerusalem question and made it clear that he would press the issue on the international stage. “I think it is important that the issue is kept alive in Turkey and other places with international meetings,” he said.
A week after Trump’s Jerusalem statement on December 6, Erdogan led a special OIC summit in Istanbul that rejected the US move and called on countries to recognise the eastern part of Jerusalem as the “occupied capital” of the Palestinians. The summit declaration has not been followed up by concrete action, however.
The Turkish leader, whose voter base includes millions of conservative Sunnis, has been an outspoken critic of Israel, although he has been careful to avoid a breakdown of diplomatic and military relations with the Jewish state. Erdogan also criticised the Vatican sharply in recent years, especially after Francis in 2016 called the massacres against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the first world war a genocide.
The Armenian issue did not cloud Erdogan’s first meeting with the pope in the Vatican. The visit came as Turkey prepares for municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections next year. There is speculation Erdogan could pull the parliamentary and presidential vote forward to this summer to make use of a surge in nationalism triggered by Turkey’s military intervention against a Kurdish militia in neighbouring Syria.
Erdogan has not mentioned the election campaign in connection with his Rome visit but it is clear his meeting with the pope was important to him: While Erdogan cancelled a visit to South America because of the military campaign in Syria, he stuck with his 1-day trip to Rome.
Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of International Relations and European Studies at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said the Turkish president was keen to show off his image as a fighter for Muslim rights.
“Erdogan’s meeting with the pope, much like his outburst against Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum, enables him to portray Turkey — and, by extension, himself — as the rightful leader of the (Sunni) Muslim world and therefore the rightful protector of Palestinians and holy Muslim sites,” Hintz said via e-mail.
Given the polarisation in Turkish society, with the electorate seemingly evenly split between Erdogan voters and detractors, mobilising his support base is of high importance for the president as the election season draws near. In a referendum on the introduction of a presidential system in Turkey last year, Erdogan won by a close vote amid reports of manipulation.
“Gambits in the international arena that appear to demonstrate power and piety may win him electoral support back home,” Hintz wrote about Erdogan. Referring to the “razor-thin margin” of victory in the referendum last year and “the unprecedented electoral manipulation that was necessary to facilitate that victory,” Hintz pointed out that Erdogan cannot be sure of the result of the coming elections. “Turkey’s president needs to do all he can on the domestic and international fronts to secure support.”