UPDATES WITH MOE REMARKS FROM ERDOGAN AND TURKISH GENERAL STAFF STATEMENT
By Andac Hongur and Ismail Ozdemir
ISTANBUL (AA) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said that he saw his official visit to the Vatican as a "significant opportunity' to convey messages of peace.
Erdogan is scheduled to pay an official visit to the Vatican and Rome on Sunday and Monday. His visit will be the first Turkish presidential trip to the Vatican in 59 years.
"I see this visit as a significant opportunity to draw attention to common human values, giving friendship and peace messages,” Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport ahead of his departure for the Vatican.
Erdogan went on to outline the issues he will discuss with Pope Francis during his official visit.
“We will discuss Palestine, Jerusalem, Syria, Iraq, counterterrorism, refugee issues, humanitarian aid,” he said.
Erdogan said that since Pope Francis was the spiritual leader of the Catholic world in 2013, he played a very active role in ongoing issues which have won the general approval of the international community.
“We especially welcomed his stance on the Jerusalem issue. We spoke several times over the phone during this period. His positive stance really mattered to show us what we can jointly do together with him as the Christian world’s leader."
Along with Erdogan, Pope Francis was one of the most prominent international leaders to criticize the U.S. decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“We will also exchange views on rising Islamophobia in the west and fighting cultural racism,” he added.
During his two-day official visit Erdogan will also meet his Italian counterpart Sergio Mattarella for a working luncheon in Rome and and then separately Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
During the meetings, the leaders will discuss cooperation in various areas, including economy and defense industry.
Also expected to be covered are the latest developments in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Jerusalem, Turkish-EU relations, anti-terror cooperation and irregular migration.
Erdogan said he hoped the trade volume between Turkey and Italy would increase from $20 billion to $30 billion by 2020.
"During my visit, we will also discuss the mutual steps to be taken towards this goal," he said.
Additionally, Erdogan said the number of "neutralized" terrorists had reached 935 since the launch of Operation Olive Branch in Syria's Afrin on Jan. 20.
Later on Sunday, the Turkish General Staff confirmed the number of terrorists killed in a written statement.
On Jan. 20, the Turkish army launched Operation Olive Branch to remove PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin. According to the Turkish General Staff, the operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkey’s borders and the region as well as protect Syrians from terrorist oppression and cruelty.
The operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey's rights based on international law, UN Security Council resolutions, its self-defense rights under the UN Charter, and respect for Syria's territorial integrity.