One dead after armed assault on Catholic church in Istanbul

Turkish officials said it looked like a targeted attack against one person rather than against the Catholic church (OZAN KOSE)
Turkish officials said it looked like a targeted attack against one person rather than against the Catholic church (OZAN KOSE)

One man died after armed assailants opened fire in an Italian church in Istanbul during Sunday mass in an apparent assassination attempt that was swiftly condemned by Pope Francis and Turkish officials.

The attack occurred at around 11:40 am (0840 GMT) at the Santa Maria church in the Sariyer district of Istanbul on the European side of Turkey's largest city and was carried out by two masked men, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said on social media.

Turkish officials said it looked like a targeted attack against one person rather than against the Catholic church.

The minister said an individual identified only as C.T. -- who was among those attending Sunday's service -- was the target of the gun attack and lost his life.

Yerlikaya added that an investigation had been launched to find the attackers, who fled the scene after the shooting.

Turkish counter-terrorism police detained one man in connection with the attack, the private DHA news agency reported, without providing further details.

Local officials said around 40 people attended the mass, and suggested that there could have been more casualties.

"After the second shot, the gun didn't work, then they (attackers) ran. At this moment, everyone laid on the floor. There were around 35 to 40 people inside," Sariyer district's mayor Sukru Genc told reporters.

Istanbul governor Davut Gul said that there were no other injuries.

-'Closeness to community'-

Television images showed police and an ambulance outside the ornate 19th century church.

"We strongly condemn this vile attack," Yerlikaya said.

Security footage ahead of the attack showed a pair of men wearing black ski masks with their hands hidden in their pockets and one was seen wearing black sunglasses.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was in the central Anatolian province of Eskisehir for his party's rally ahead of March local elections, expressed condolences during a phone call with the priest of the Italian church and other local officials.

He assured that "necessary steps are being taken to catch the perpatrators as soon as possible", according to his office.

Pope Francis expressed his support for the Catholic church after the attack.

"I express my closeness to the community of the Santa Maria" church in Istanbul, the Argentinian pope said at the end of his weekly Angelus prayer in St Peter's Square at the Vatican.

- 'Firm condemnation'-

Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani also expressed his "condolences and firm condemnation" over the attack, and backed the Turkish authorities to find the killers.

The incident comes more than a week after Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met with Erdogan in Istanbul.

Turkey's ruling AKP party spokesman Omer Celik said the attackers took aim at a citizen during the mass.

"Our security forces are conducting a large-scale investigation into the matter," he said.

"Those who threaten the peace and security of our citizens will never achieve their goals."

Istanbul's popular mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said: "We will never allow those who aim at our unity and peace by attacking houses of religion in our city."

The motive for the attack was also not immediately clear.

In December last year, Turkish security forces detained 32 suspects over alleged links with so-called Islamic State jihadists who were planning attacks on churches and synagogues, as well as the Iraqi embassy.

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