Pope Francis expresses closeness after church attack in Istanbul

Pope Francis expresses closeness after church attack in Istanbul The Italian Santa Maria Catholic Church in Istanbul, Turkey, is pictured after two masked gunmen attacked the church during Sunday morning Mass, January 28, leaving at least one worshipper dead. Photo: OSV News/Dilara Senkaya, Reuters

Pope Francis has expressed his closeness to the small Catholic community in Turkey after gunmen attacked a church during Sunday morning Mass January 28, leaving at least one worshipper dead.

The shooting occurred just before noon at the Santa Maria church in the Sariyer district of Istanbul, and was reportedly carried out by two masked men according to eyewitnesses. Turkey’s Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya posted a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, saying, “We strongly condemn this vile attack”.

The area where the attack happened is popular with Christians in the 99.8%-Muslim majority country of nearly 85 million people, being home to the Santa Maria Catholic church – known as the Italian church – a Greek Orthodox church and an Armenian Apostolic church all dating from the 19th Century. Istanbul is also home to the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc said in a statement that “efforts continue to identify and capture the suspects who carried out the attack”.

“The investigation is being carried out in a multifaceted and meticulous manner,” Mr Tunc added.

Television images from state media showed police and an ambulance outside the church, which is in an area of Istanbul popular with the expatriate and diplomatic community.

Turkey’s ruling AKP party spokesman Omer Celik said on X that the attackers took aim at a person during the Mass.

“Our security forces are conducting a large-scale investigation into the matter,” he wrote.

“Those who threaten the peace and security of our citizens will never achieve their goals,” he insisted.

Local media reported that others were injured in the attack, but this was not immediately confirmed by the authorities.

Speaking at the Vatican during his traditional Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis expressed his support as details of the incident emerged.

“I would like to express my closeness to the community of the church of Santa Maria in Istanbul, which suffered an armed attack during Mass that caused one death and left several injured,” he told thousands of pilgrims and visitors gathered in St Peter’s Square for his blessing.

Authorities have not yet identified a motive for the attack. However, Turkish security services have been engaged in operations against suspected Islamists in recent months.

In December, security forces detained 32 suspects over alleged links with the so-called Islamic State group, an extremist Islamic militant organisation which planned attacks on churches and synagogues, as well as the Iraqi embassy.

The group have carried out a string of attacks on Turkish soil, including against a nightclub in Istanbul in 2017 that left 39 people dead.