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Pope raises Afrin, Jerusalem with Turkey's Erdogan amid protest ban in Vatican Open in fullscreen

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Pope raises Afrin, Jerusalem with Turkey's Erdogan amid protest ban in Vatican

The pair were expected to address several sensitive issues during Erdogan's visit [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 February, 2018

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Afrin and Jerusalem were on the agenda of the meeting between the leaders of Turkey and the Catholic church, amid a 24-hour protest ban enforced by police.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Pope Francis in Rome on Monday morning, while Italian police enforced a protest ban in the city, as tensions run high over Turkey's bloody offensive against Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

For the first such visit by a Turkish leader for 59 years, the Italian authorities have imposed a 24-hour ban on demonstrations which covers the leader's arrival late Sunday to his departure on Monday evening, with 3,500 police deployed for the visit, according to AFP.

Despite the temporary ban and hefty police presence, a sit-in protest has been planned near the Vatican by an Italian Kurdish association, in which 200 people are scheduled to take part.

Turkey launched its "Olive Branch" operation last month against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia which Ankara deems a terrorist group who pose a security 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.

Since the start of the operation, at least 68 civilians - including 21 children and 12 women - have been killed by Turkey and its allies' "shelling and bombardments," according to the UK-based conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish President presented a miniature Iznik pottery to
Pope Francis as a present after their meeting [Getty]

The pope, who has railed against the horrors of war and weapons of mass destruction, was likely to raise the Afrin issue during his meeting with Erdogan.

Ahead of the meeting, Erdogan's convoy arrived at a deserted Saint Peter's Square, which was under heavy police protection.

The YPG, while considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara, is allied to the United States in its battle against Islamic State group jihadists.

Thousands of Kurds gathered in Syria's Afrin on Saturday to mourn fighters and civilians killed in a blistering Turkish assault on the region.

Those killed included female combatant Barin Kobani whose mutilated body appeared in a shocking video, prompting accusations by her family and Kurdish officials that she was "defiled" by Turkish-backed rebels. 

Erdogan for his part will probably thank the pontiff 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 on Sunday.

Armenian 'genocide' spat

Erdogan's flying visit to Italy will also include a meeting with his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, with illegal immigration, defence and EU membership likely on the agenda.

The pair seemed to have put their 2016 spat over the
Armenian Genocide behind them [Getty]

Pope Francis, a strong proponent of inter-faith dialogue, visited Turkey in November 2014, holding friendly talks with Erdogan, an oft purported leader of the Muslim and Arab worlds.

While in Istanbul the pope acknowledged that current global crises had made Muslims vulnerable to being stigmatised.

Francis denounced those who said, "all Muslims are terrorists".

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.

On Sunday, Erdogan also insisted in a newspaper interview that Turkey wants "full membership of Europe" and did not rule out joint Italian-Turkish action in Libya.

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