October 21, 2014 / 12:18 PM / 5 years ago

Pope to visit Turkey as region's Christians flee Islamic State persecution

Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross as he leads a consistory for the beatification of Giuseppe Vaz and Maria Cristina dell'Immacolata Concezione in the Synod Hall at the Vatican October 20, 2014. REUTERS/Max Rossi

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis will travel to Turkey next month, the Vatican said on Tuesday, his first visit to the predominantly Muslim country which has become a refuge for Christians fleeing persecution by Islamic State militants in neighboring Syria and in Iraq.

During his three-day visit, the pope will meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He will also meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the Orthodox churches that make up the second-largest Christian church family after Roman Catholicism.

“The Holy Father will visit Ankara and Istanbul from Nov. 28 to 30,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement.

Islamic State militants have declared a “caliphate” in the territories they control and have killed or driven out large numbers of Christians, Shi’ite Muslims and others who do not subscribe to their hardline version of Sunni Islam.

Many have fled to Turkey, along with tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds who left as Islamic State forces seized dozens of their villages close to the border, where fighting continues.

A U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes on the militants near the Syrian border town of Kobani which is being defended by Kurdish fighters. Turkey said earlier on Monday it would facilitate passage of Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in Kobani.

On Monday, Francis told cardinals at the Vatican that Islamic State had reached levels of terrorism “previously unimaginable”.

“Many of our brothers are persecuted and were forced to leave their homes ... It seems that awareness of the value of human life has been lost, that people do not count and can be sacrificed for other interests,” he said.

The Turkey trip would be Francis’s third to a mainly Muslim nation after Jordan and Albania.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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