VATICAN CITY — Paying the first Vatican visit by a Turkish head of state in 59 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Monday with Pope Francis to discuss the status of Jerusalem, human rights and refugees while Kurdish and Italian protesters clashed with police a short distance from Vatican City.
Police in riot gear blocked the protesters, estimated by officers to number about 150, near Rome’s Tiber River as they tried to get closer to the Vatican. One protester suffered a bloody gash on his head in the scuffle. Police said another was detained.
“I am surprised the pope is willing to meet with a person like that, a dictator, an assassin, with blood on his hands,” Said Durson, who was among the demonstrators, said.
Turkey last month launched a military offensive in a Kurdish-held enclave in Syria. The Turkish government says the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia there to be a terrorist organization and an extension of Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey.
Both the Turkish and Vatican sides described the private talks as cordial. Francis and Erdogan have made plain their concern over the Trump Administration’s decision two months ago to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Erdogan, in an interview with Italian daily newspaper La Stampa on Sunday, said he and the pope already had talked by telephone about the Jerusalem issue and said both of them favored working to maintain the status quo for the city considered holy by three religions.
In a brief statement, the Holy See said Francis and Erdogan discussed 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.”
The pope and Erdogan previously met when Francis visited Turkey in 2014. The Vatican communique issued Monday made no mention of the widespread international criticism of Turkey’s human rights’ record, including the arrests and firings of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens after a failed coup in 2016.
The Vatican said Erdogan and Francis also discussed Turkey’s “reception of the many refugees and the challenges linked to this.” Turkey agreed to try to hold back the flood of refugees trying to reach Europe as part of a 3-billion-euro (then $3.4 billion) deal with the European Union.
Anadolu Agency, a state-run Turkish news agency, said Erdogan and Francis also expressed the need to avoid “provocative statements that link Islam with terrorism.”
Referring to Jerusalem in December, Francis emphasized that the city is sacred to followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and prayed that no “new elements of tension” would be added to a world already suffering many conflicts.
Erdogan’s schedule also included lunch with Italy’s president and a meeting with the Italian premier.
AP reporter Trisha Thomas in Vatican City and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.