|World -- Analysis|
Issue Date: November 24, 2006
Turkey poses daunting tests for Benedict
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey Nov. 28-Dec. 1, he faces a series of challenges that, like concentric circles, become larger and more daunting as theyre arranged around one another. Coupled with the intense media attention the trip is certain to draw -- more than 2,000 journalists are expected to follow the pope on his first visit to a majority Muslim state -- these complexities make Turkey the trickiest high-wire act of his pontificate to date.
Benedict is scheduled to make stops in Ankara, Ephesus and Istanbul. Among the conundrums awaiting him:
Beyond these challenges, one final unknown hovers in the form of security considerations. In perhaps the most ominous premonition, a potboiler novel published in Turkey over the summer titled Papaya suikast (Attack on the Pope) predicted that Benedict will be assassinated while in Turkey. Written by novelist Yücel Kaya, the book is subtitled, Who will kill Benedict XVI in Istanbul?
Both senior Vatican officials and local organizers say that while the pope can be protected, it may prove more difficult to secure local Christian targets -- churches, schools and Christian-owned businesses -- against reprisals should public opinion turn against the trip or should extremist groups want to capitalize on the popes presence to lash out.
Turkey thus offers both promise and peril aplenty for Benedicts effort to engage Muslims in what he has called a frank and sincere dialogue.
Despite Atatürks vision in the early 20th century of a modern, pro-Western Turkey, the Islamic roots of the country are never far from the surface. Historically, the Ottoman Empire was considered the great carrier of Islamic civilization from the 16th to the 20th centuries, and Turkish Muslims have kept that heritage alive despite several decades of official secularization.
The electoral victory of Islamic-inspired political forces in the 2002 national elections, which brought former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power as prime minister, offered a clear reminder of Turkeys enduring Muslim identity. (Erdogan will not meet Benedict in Turkey, opting instead to attend a NATO summit in Latvia.)
A recent national poll conducted by Professors Ali Carkoglu and Ersin Kalaycioglu from Sabanci and Isik Universities in Istanbul found that more than 60 percent of Turks would refuse permission for their daughter to marry a non-Muslim, 60 percent blamed a lack of religious beliefs for failure in life, and 46 percent favored schools specialized in religious teachings for their children over schools with secular curriculums. Almost 70 percent said they considered the countrys ban on headscarves for women to be religious oppression and supported its repeal.
Further, its uniformly believed in Turkey that if the country were to lurch too far in the direction of an Islamic theocracy along the lines of neighboring Iran, the Turkish military would intervene and restore the countrys officially secular orientation. The military toppled heads of state in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and engineered a bloodless postmodern coup in 1997 that resulted in the forced resignation of then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who had exploited pro-Islamic sentiment.
Benedicts more challenging line on Islam with respect to his predecessor, John Paul II, has to date revolved around two points: terrorism and reciprocity, meaning the need for Islamic states to respect Western standards of religious freedom (NCR, Oct. 13). In that light, its difficult to imagine that Benedict would visit Turkey and not at least indirectly raise issues of religious freedom, such as the status of the Halki Seminary of the patriarchate of Constantinople, shuttered by government edict for 35 years, or the status of Greek Orthodox churches and other institutions in Cyprus.
Such issues, however, risk inflaming Turkish opinion, potentially being seen as further proof of an anti-Turkish bias. At least one local Christian leader, the Armenian patriarch in Turkey, Mesrob II, has expressed hope that the pope wont bring up such matters, which he described as interfering in the internal affairs of Turkey.
It should be dealt with on a different basis, not during an apostolic visit, he told NCR in September 2005.
In part, such reluctance reflects historical memories of the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, when first the French and then other foreign powers extracted a series of capitulations granting special privileges to Christians. The system began at street level: Christian women, for example, were allowed to travel first-class on second-class tickets on the ferries that crisscrossed the Bosphorus. In fact, when Atatürk declared equality before the law for all Turkish citizens in the early 20th century, some Christians protested on the grounds that it would mean giving up a patchwork of special advantages and perks.
Many Turks associate these capitulations with the gradual undermining of the Ottoman Empire, so the specter of Western figures demanding better treatment for Christians today tends to awaken these historical ghosts. Benedict faces the challenge of phrasing his defense of Turkeys Christians, who are generally Greek and Armenian, as a matter of universal human rights in a way that doesnt simply deepen Turkish defensiveness.
That may be especially tricky, given that for many Turkish Muslims, Benedict XVI doesnt start with a clean slate. Aside from Regensburg, he is also known for widely publicized comments prior to his election as pope opposing Turkeys European Union candidacy.
In a 2004 interview with the French daily Le Figaro, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that Turkey has always been in permanent contrast to Europe, and that it should look instead to play a leadership role in a network of Islamic states.
In the course of history, Turkey has always represented a different continent, Ratzinger said, giving as an example the Ottoman Empire, which once invaded Europe as far as Vienna. Making the two continents identical would be a mistake, he said. It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural to the benefit of economics.
Its not clear whether Ratzingers private opinion as cardinal will drive the Vaticans formal diplomatic stance now that hes pope. Some Christian leaders hope not.
Isnt it hypocritical to say that a Muslim country at the edge of Europe, which is much more moderate than many other Islamic nations, as secular as it can be within its own tradition, cant enter simply because its Muslim? said Mesrob, the Armenian patriarch in Turkey, who studied in Rome at the Dominican-run Angelicum University.
Mesrob gave three reasons why he supports Turkeys entry:
The Armenian question is itself yet another potential headache.
There are only some 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey, but almost 100,000 Armenian Orthodox, including 68,000 Turkish Armenians and 30,000 migrant laborers. Both they and the worldwide Armenian diaspora, which is especially strong in the United States, will be waiting to hear Benedict say something about the mass killing of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia in 1915, and again in 1922 and 1923, a tragedy that Armenians remember as a genocide, but which Turks insist involved atrocities on all sides. (Conventional estimates are that somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died during this period.)
When John Paul II in 2001 visited the Tzitzernagaberd Memorial in Yerevan, capital of the independent republic of Armenia, he did not himself use the word genocide, referring instead in Armenian to the Metz Yeghern, a phrase that means great killing. Yet John Paul and Armenian Patriarch Karekin II put out a joint statement recalling the suffering of what is generally referred to as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Given that precedent, it may be especially difficult for Benedict XVI to avoid the term himself. Yet if he does, it is sure to be taken by many Turks as another slight, especially in light of a recent dustup with France over a proposed French law that would make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide.
At almost every turn in Turkey, Benedict faces tough choices. His every utterance will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny both by the media and by Muslim commentators. Whatever happens, the world should have a more clear sense by the evening of Dec. 1, when Benedicts plane leaves Turkish airspace, of what kind of dialogue with Islam he may be able to engineer -- and, perhaps, of what kind of pope he hopes to be.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006
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