The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch has declared his support for Turkey's current anti-Kurdish military campaign in Syria, provoking criticisms from neighbouring Greece. "Your determined attitude in strictly rejecting any association of terrorism with religion is being reflected on to world opinion," the Istanbul-based Bartholomew I told President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an open letter. "We pray that you and the Turkish armed forces will achieve success and that Operation Olive Branch will, as its title promises, bring peace to this area."
The letter, published by Turkey's Hurriyet daily, said the Orthodox Church had not forgotten that hundreds of thousands of people were now displaced because of the Syrian conflict.
Turkey launched a major military operation on 20 January to clear the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or the YPG, from Syria's northern Afrin region, and claimed last weekend to have killed more than 400 Kurdish fighters, whose forces control around a quarter of Syrian territory. Speaking on Sunday, President Erdogan said the campaign could now be extended to other parts of the 500-mile Turkish-Syrian border, to create a 20-mile “security zone”. Meanwhile, Ankara government sources said over 300 people had been arrested in Turkey, most of whose 75 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, for spreading "terrorist propaganda" against the military action.
Newspapers in Greece, which has joined the US in backing a Kurdish-led border force in Syria, criticised Bartholomew I's open letter, while the country's Orthodox church portal published a mock-up picture of the patriarch grinning next to a heavily armed Turkish soldier.
Turkey's Catholic Church, whose seven dioceses and apostolic vicariates have around 53,000 members, according to the Vatican, has not commented on the military campaign. However, Germany's Catholic Bishops’ Conference last week demanded an end to arms sales to Turkey, including of Leopard II tanks currently being deployed in Syria, and called for a tighter military export law. President Erdogan is due to meet Pope Francis in the Vatican on Tuesday next week for talks on the status of Jerusalem, among other issues.
Pic: Military equipment and troops head in convoy toward the Turkey - Syria border, bound to reinforce Turkish army Operation Olive Branch in northwestern Syria, in Hatay, Turkey, Wednesday, January 28, 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey's incursion into a Kurdish-held enclave in Syria is progressing "successfully" and will continue until the last "terrorist" is eliminated. Photo credit: Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images