Cover story -- Papal trip to Turkey -- Analysis
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Issue Date:  December 8, 2006

Pope Benedict takes a 'soft tone' in Turkey

Istanbul, Ephesus and Ankara, Turkey

During his first four foreign trips, Pope Benedict XVI developed the annoying habit of making the world wait for the big story. In Poland last May, for example, his speech at Auschwitz, which disappointed some because it offered no new apology for the Holocaust, didn’t come until the last day. In Bavaria in September, the pope’s now-famous speech at the University of Regensburg, which touched off a firestorm of controversy in the Muslim world, came more than halfway into the five-day trip.

In Turkey, however, the biggest splash came on Day 1, roughly a half-hour after the pope landed at the Ankara airport. In a closed-door meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been among the most outspoken critics of Benedict XVI after the Regensburg speech, the pope indicated that he now smiles upon Turkey’s candidacy to join the European Union.

In reality, Erdogan probably engaged in a bit of spin with regard to the pope’s comments. It was Erdogan who told the press that the pope had endorsed Turkey’s EU bid, while the Vatican later clarified that the pope had not taken a political position for or against admission, but instead merely affirmed the country’s efforts at “dialogue and drawing close” to Europe.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that Benedict XVI effectively disavowed his earlier position, expressed while still a cardinal, that Turkey is “in permanent contrast to Europe,” and that admitting it to the EU would further muddy the Christian roots of the continent.

Anyone familiar with even a smidgen of papal history knows that popes don’t often reverse field in quite so clear a fashion, and the fact that Benedict did so right out of the gate crystallized the basic spirit of this Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip, Benedict’s fifth as pope and his first to a majority Muslim state: No effort was spared to convince the Muslim world that “the pope of Regensburg,” depicted variously by Muslim critics as a neo-crusader and as the chaplain to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, is actually a friend.

In terms of realpolitik, Benedict’s new line on the EU probably means little in terms of Turkey’s actual chances. It’s hardly as if the powers-that-be in Brussels were waiting for a declaration from the pope. This is the same body, after all, that repeatedly spurned Vatican pleas for even a passing reference to God in the preamble to the new European constitution. Just 24 hours after Benedict met with the Turkish prime minister, the European Commission announced a partial suspension of talks with Ankara, further dimming the country’s prospects.

At a symbolic level, however, Benedict’s new line sent an unambiguous signal that he’s willing to go to great lengths to win Muslim hearts and minds.

At a meeting with diplomats accredited to Ankara Nov. 29, Ambassador Georges H. Siam of Lebanon complimented Benedict XVI on his “soft tone” in Turkey, and that in many ways seems an appropriate tag line for the four-day trip.

Over and over, a series of key words percolated like leitmotifs through the pope’s remarks: dialogue, understanding, brotherhood and peace. Repeatedly, Benedict stressed his “great esteem” for Muslims and, in particular, his respect for Turks, often invoking the memory of Pope John XXIII, who served as apostolic delegate in Turkey from 1933 to 1945 and is remembered fondly here.

In a speech at the Religious Affairs Directorate Nov. 28, for example, Benedict expressed “profound esteem for all the people of this great country,” and greeted Turkish Muslims “with particular esteem and affectionate regard.”

In what seemed almost a deliberate counterpoint to his infamous quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor at the University of Regensburg, Benedict this time cited an 11th-century pope, Gregory VII, who said to a Muslim prince in 1076 that Christians and Muslims owe charity to one another “because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.”

By and large, the Turks seemed to reciprocate. Planned protests never really materialized, and the coverage in the Turkish press was overwhelmingly positive. After the first day, and in the wake of Benedict’s reversal of field on the EU, one Turkish newspaper ran the banner headline: “It’s a beautiful start.”

Small, telling decisions

In a series of small but telling decisions, Benedict XVI appeared to do everything possible to avoid irritating his hosts. For example:

  • At a Mass at Ephesus Nov. 29, he referred to the “witness” of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro, but without mentioning that Santoro was gunned down Feb. 15 in the Black Sea city of Trabzon by a young Muslim shouting “God is great!” who later said he had been agitated by the Danish cartoon controversy. Many Turkish Christians see Santoro as a symbol of the precarious nature of life in an overwhelmingly Muslim society, where Christians run the risk of being seen as an alien element.
  • At least four times, Benedict made reference to freedom of religion, but he never linked that generic appeal to specific problems in Turkey, where Christian churches cannot own property or enter into contracts, where it is often impossible to get permits for new churches or to secure visas for Christian clergy, and where the seminaries of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches have been shuttered by government edict since 1971.
  • In his meeting with Patriarch Mesrob II in Istanbul Nov. 30, Benedict referred to the “tragic circumstances” endured by Armenians in Turkey in the 20th century, but without using the term “genocide,” which is anathema to most Turks. His decision is all the more striking given that John Paul II used the term “genocide” in reference to the Armenians during his visit toYerevan in 2001, in a joint statement with Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic church.
  • In impromptu remarks as part of his meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, Benedict said that his decision in May to appoint Cardinal Paul Poupard as president of both the Pontifical Council for Culture and for Inter-religious Dialogue was not a way to “diminish” the latter office, but to “integrate” and “reinforce” the work of both. The pope also rejected “Islamophobia,” and said that he regarded Islam as a religion of peace.
  • In an unusual revision to the official schedule, Benedict added a Nov. 30 visit to the famed “Blue Mosque” in Istanbul. While there, he donned a pair of white slippers, in keeping with the Islamic tradition of not wearing shoes inside a mosque, and paused for a moment of what appeared to be silent prayer alongside his Muslim host. Later he said, “We pray for fraternity and for all humanity.”
  • While milling with the small crowd of pilgrims who arrived for the open-air Mass at Ephesus, Benedict spontaneously picked up a Turkish flag and briefly waved it, providing a classic image of papal beneficence toward his host country.

None of this is perhaps surprising, given the powerful incentives both the Vatican and the Turks felt to make the trip a success. In the wake of Regensburg, Benedict XVI wanted to convince Muslim public opinion that he’s a friend of Islam, while the Turks wanted to show the world that theirs is a sophisticated, pluralistic nation, ready to take its place in Europe.

In a sense, therefore, the game in Turkey was always Benedict’s to lose, and he made sure not to put a foot wrong.

Moreover, the challenging line of “the pope of Regensburg” was not completely absent from Benedict’s appeals in Turkey. Albeit in oblique form, his twin challenge to Muslims on terrorism and religious freedom did surface throughout the trip.

“The civil authorities of every democratic country are duty-bound to guarantee the effective freedom of all believers and to permit them to organize freely the life of their religious communities,” he said in a meeting with ambassadors Nov. 28. “I am certain that religious liberty is a fundamental expression of human liberty and that the active presence of religions in society is a source of progress and enrichment for all.”

Speaking directly to Bardakoglu of the Religious Affairs Directorate, Benedict called for “freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice.” That language seemed deliberate, given that the Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but in practice Turkish bureaucrats often make life difficult for the country’s small Christian minority of perhaps 100,000 believers in a country of 72 million.

Likewise, the pope insisted that religious leaders must “utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion.”

Nevertheless, the preponderant message delivered on the Turkey trip was one of friendship, not debate. Though Benedict did not offer any new apology for the Regensburg address, the entire trip seemed to have an air of contrition.

Eisn Tunali, 38, is a Muslim covert to Protestantism who drove six hours to attend the papal Mass in Ephesus Nov. 28. She said the trip allows Turks to get a different impression of the pope.

“They can see that anybody can make a mistake,” she told NCR. “This is kind of like an apology.”

The gamble of the visit appeared to be that if Benedict wants to challenge Islam to an internal reformation, he first has to establish his credentials as a friend. Whether that strategy will pay off remains to be seen. In the immediate wake of the trip, there was no indication that the Turkish government intends to heed his message on religious freedom in a new way -- for example, by allowing the Halki seminary of the patriarch of Constantinople to reopen, which has emerged as a leading symbol of the problem of religious liberty in majority Muslim states.

The original purpose of Benedict’s trip, which was somewhat overshadowed by the focus on Christian/Muslim issues and the prospect of a “clash of civilizations,” was to visit the patriarch of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world. On that level, the trip was intended as a further gesture of ecumenical openness, in keeping with Benedict’s vow one day after his election in April 2005 that Christian unity would be a top priority of his pontificate.

Benedict and Bartholomew I, whose formal title is “His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome,” celebrated a vespers service together at the Phanar, the headquarters of the patriarch in Istanbul, on the evening of Nov. 29, and then celebrated a divine liturgy the next day. The two men blessed one another, prayed the Our Father together, and issued a joint blessing to the assembly at the Phanar.

“I can assure you the Catholic church is willing to do everything possible to overcome obstacles and to seek, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, ever more effective means of pastoral cooperation,” Benedict pledged on Nov. 30.

The pope argued that greater Orthodox/Catholic closeness is especially important in the context of a Europe seemingly ever more determined to blur its Christian identity.

“The process of secularization has weakened the hold of that tradition,” he said. “Indeed, it is being called into question, and even rejected. In the face of this reality, we are called, together with all Christian communities, to renew Europe’s awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality.”

In their Common Declaration, released Nov. 30, Benedict and Bartholomew picked up that theme.

“In Europe, while remaining open to other religions and to their cultural contributions, we must unite our efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values, to ensure respect for history,” the two leaders said.

To those expecting a more Regensburg-esque, cage-rattling performance, it was striking that Benedict never explicitly engaged the crisis besetting the patriarch of Constantinople, who presides over a tiny flock of roughly 2,000 people, 60 percent of whom are over 50 years old. As recently as 1950, there were more than 100,000 Orthodox faithful in Istanbul, but waves of harassment from the Turkish government have driven most away. Some issue dire warnings that the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey may be on the verge of extinction. The Turkish authorities have never recognized any “ecumenical” role for the patriarch, insisting on treating him as no more than a local clergyman, and demanding that the occupant of the office must be a Turkish citizen born in Turkey. For many Turkish nationalists, the patriarchate is an unwelcome Greek presence on Turkish soil.

Recalling Christian heritage

Benedict walked up to the brink of acknowledging these realities in the Common Declaration, where he and Bartholomew recalled “the Christian heritage of the land in which our meeting is taking place,” and asserted that this tradition “remains timely and will bear more fruit in the future.”

Yet without directly calling the Turks to task for their neglect of the patriarch, many observers felt that Benedict’s visit amounted to a major boon for the local Orthodox community.

“Sometimes when you are living in the shadows of religious asphyxiation, a brother coming from the West can bring light to the East,” said Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, an official of the ecumenical patriarch based in New York who was on hand for the events in Istanbul.

“Peter has come to give strength to his older brother,” Karloutsos told NCR on the margins of the vespers service celebrated by Benedict and Bartholomew.

Benedict is the third pope to visit the Phanar, following in the footsteps of Paul VI in 1967 and John Paul II in 1979.

Certainly the Orthodox did everything they could to milk the pope’s visit for PR value, setting up sophisticated press centers, bringing in English-speaking spokespersons, and even inviting journalists to a reception with Bartholomew on the evening of Nov. 30 at the Istanbul Hilton Hotel.

Yet if the aim of the meeting between pope and patriarch was to usher in a new phase of Catholic/Orthodox unity, there seemed little immediate indication that any progress had been made on the one issue that has long blocked real ecumenical progress -- Orthodox concerns about the power of the pope.

Benedict addressed the issue in his remarks Nov. 30, noting that “differences of opinion” over the role of the pope are currently under review in the joint Catholic/Orthodox international dialogue. He cited Pope John Paul II’s offer in the 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint to reconsider a new mode of exercising the papacy that would be acceptable to other Christians, and Benedict added, “It is my desire today to recall and renew this invitation.”

Exactly what such a revamped papacy would look like, however, is still to be spelled out. If anything, Orthodox observers at the Phanar, watching the massive media and security presence that follows the pope, as opposed to the near-invisibility of their patriarch, seemed more conscious than ever of the danger of being swamped in the pope’s wake.

In the final analysis, evaluating the success of Benedict’s Turkey trip requires defining its aim. If the point was to expand upon the conversation hinted at in his Regensburg address, about the relationship between reason and faith and the related problem of extremism in some currents of Islam, there was little evidence that much had been accomplished. But if the hope was to reintroduce Benedict to Muslims as a friend, on that front the trip did indeed seem to move some opinion.

One Turk put it to a reporter this way: “I’m not sure we like this pope yet,” he said, asking that his name not be used. “But at least we don’t dislike him anymore.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2006

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