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Issue Date:  November 24, 2006

Turkey poses daunting tests for Benedict


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 they’re 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:

  • How to reassure Muslims that he’s a friend of Islam, especially in the wake of his controversial Sept. 12 comments at the University of Regensburg, quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought things “only evil and inhuman”? Benedict won’t have to wait long; on the first day of the trip, he meets Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey’s top religious affairs director, who called the Regensburg remarks “regrettable and worrying ... both for the Christian world and for the common peace of humanity.”
  • How to encourage moderate Muslim voices in Turkey, a country often seen as the best hope for dialogue with the Islamic world, without inadvertently reinforcing either of two contrary forces: on the one hand, a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism sometimes linked to nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire; and on the other, the rigid secularization associated with the modern founder of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, who attempted to suppress virtually every public expression of Islam?
  • What, if anything, to say about the dire situation facing Turkey’s small Christian communities, such as the forced closure of the seminaries of the patriarchate of Constantinople and the Armenian Orthodox church? If the pope is perceived as confrontational, it could further sour relations with Muslims, especially given the bitter history in Turkey of foreign powers demanding special treatment for Christians. Yet the original purpose of Benedict’s visit was to reinforce ecumenical relations with the Orthodox, especially the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, and it’s difficult to imagine that the pope can remain silent on the issue of religious freedom.
  • What, if anything, to say about Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union -- a move which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had opposed prior to his election as pope, on the grounds that it would further muddy Europe’s Christian identity? (Ironically, the more radical Muslim forces in Turkey, which Benedict wants to discourage, are the most likely to be Euro-skeptics.)
  • What, if anything, to say about the decimation of Turkey’s Armenian population in the early 20th century, which Armenians recall as “genocide,” a term bitterly contested by Turks? Especially when Benedict meets the Armenian Patriarch in Turkey, Mesrob II, on Nov. 30, it will be a tough question to avoid.
  • What, if anything, to say about the delicate situation on Cyprus, where an unrecognized Turkish regime controls the northern portion of the island? On Nov. 10, Benedict met with President Tassos Papadopoulos, who governs the Greek-dominated (and therefore predominantly Christian) portion of Cyprus, receiving a collection of photos from Papadopoulos showing Christian churches in the north that have been destroyed or converted into mosques, bars and hotels. The meeting was widely seen in Turkey as a pro-Greek gesture, and it raised expectations that Benedict may address the Cyprus question during the trip.

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 Papa’ya 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 pope’s presence to lash out.

Turkey thus offers both promise and peril aplenty for Benedict’s effort to engage Muslims in what he has called a “frank and sincere” dialogue.

Despite Atatürk’s 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 Turkey’s 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 country’s ban on headscarves for women to be religious oppression and supported its repeal.

Further, it’s 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 country’s 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.

Benedict’s 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, it’s 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 won’t 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 Turkey’s Christians, who are generally Greek and Armenian, as a matter of universal human rights in a way that doesn’t simply deepen Turkish defensiveness.

That may be especially tricky, given that for many Turkish Muslims, Benedict XVI doesn’t start with a clean slate. Aside from Regensburg, he is also known for widely publicized comments prior to his election as pope opposing Turkey’s 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.”

It’s not clear whether Ratzinger’s private opinion as cardinal will drive the Vatican’s formal diplomatic stance now that he’s pope. Some Christian leaders hope not.

“Isn’t 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, can’t enter simply because it’s 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 Turkey’s entry:

  • “As a citizen on the street, I believe that if Turkey is in the EU, its whole system of law will have to be upgraded by the standards of European forms of democracy.”
  • “As a Christian, I believe that Turkey’s entry will help build a multicultural society in which Christians have equal opportunities.”
  • “As an Armenian, I believe Europe will not allow Turkey to enter without fixing its problems with Greece, Cyprus and Armenia.”

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 Benedict’s 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

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006

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