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Papal visit to Turkey begins

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Nicolas Birch
Publication Date 28 November 2006
Cite as EurasiaNet, Papal visit to Turkey begins, 28 November 2006, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46ef87b3c.html [accessed 22 September 2014]
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Nicolas Birch 11/28/06

Pope Benedict XVI arrived November 28 in Turkey on perhaps the most important foreign trip of his pontificate so far. The pope will try both to assuage cautious Muslims and promote reconciliation among Christians during his four-day visit.

Istanbul – a former capital of the Byzantine Empire, and, for centuries, a major center of Christianity – has recognized several previous popes. For example, there's a street named after John XXIII, who served as a papal envoy to Turkey in the 1930s and 40s, as well as a statue of Benedict XV, who assisted Turkish soldiers wounded during the First World War. It is unlikely that Benedict XVI will ever be so remembered, as his visit has stirred controversy since it was fist announced.

A conservative keen on reinforcing Europe's Christian bonds, Pope Benedict's claim while still a cardinal that Turkey's EU bid was a "grave error against the tide of history" irked many here. Following a 20-minute meeting with the pope at Ankara airport, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Vatican now supported Turkey's EU membership bid.

Even so, many Turks remain upset over a speech made by the pope in September in his native Germany, where he quoted a late Byzantine emperor's characterization of some of the Prophet Mohammed's teachings as "evil and inhuman."

Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey's normally mild-mannered chief cleric, called the speech "provocative and aggressive" and hinted Benedict should not come. He has since changed his mind, and was scheduled to meet the pope in Ankara late on November 28. Others Turks are less willing to forgive, however.

On November 26, 20,000 supporters of a marginal Turkish Islamist party gathered in central Istanbul to protest Pope Benedict's arrival. "We Muslims love Jesus, but this man has no love for our religion," said Hatice Gullu, wearing the black headscarf and gown worn only by a tiny minority of Turkey's most conservative women. Behind her, placards showed montages of Benedict and his Orthodox counterpart Patriarch Bartholomew I as snakes, plotting to rebuild the Byzantine Empire.

It's not just the conservatives who are up in arms either. Earlier in November, 40 nationalists staged an impromptu prayer protest in Istanbul's famous Haghia Sophia, the cathedral turned mosque that's been a museum for the last 80 years.

With memories still fresh here of Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest murdered by a Turkish teenager in the northern Turkish city of Trabzon in February, Turkish security forces are on high alert. At least 10,000 policemen will be protecting Pope Benedict when he comes to Istanbul on December 1, and traffic will be all but closed down in the cities he is visiting. "Even the birds have been banned from flying," said one recent newspaper headline.

Faced with a potential public relations catastrophe, both the Vatican and Ankara engaged in spin control in the days leading up to the visit. "I want to send a cordial greeting to the dear Turkish people, rich in history and culture," Pope Benedict said in Rome on November 26. "To these people and their representatives I express feelings of esteem and sincere friendship."

The same day, Vatican representatives confirmed that a papal visit to the Blue Mosque, a 16th century Ottoman masterpiece, had been added to his Istanbul itinerary. Benedict's predecessor John Paul II was the first ever Pope to visit a mosque in 2001.

It was only on November 27, the day before the pope's arrival, that Erdogan confirmed that he and the pontiff would meet briefly. Erdogan and Turkey's other elected leaders had been the butt of media jokes for weeks because of their transparent unwillingness to meet the pope. Following the meeting, Erdogan departed for a NATO summit in Latvia.

Given the tense atmosphere, all the talk of a clash of civilizations is understandable. But it's ironic too, because Pope Benedict's real aim in visiting Turkey is to push for reconciliation: between eastern and western Christians, that is.

The so-called great schism that separated the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches occurred in the 11th century. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 merely cemented the total break up of contact. It was not until the 1960s that the two churches were to talk constructively to each other again. When they did, led by Pope Paul VI and the then Patriarch Athenagoras, Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope, was present as an advisor.

The pope's youthful enthusiasm for ecumenical dialogue has survived into old age. Upon his election in April 2005, Benedict XVI described the promotion of the reunification of Eastern and Western Christians as a top priority of his papacy.

Unsurprisingly, he's a man who has admirers at Fener, the Istanbul seat of Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians. "Benedict is the most pro-Orthodox Pope in living memory," says Father Dosithios, Bartholomew's press secretary.

Excitement is not limited to the Orthodox community either. Earlier in November, Halil Inalcik, probably Turkey's best-known historian of the Ottoman Empire, was quoted by Turkish newspapers as saying that church reunification was on the cards. "We could just be on the threshold of history," he said.

Church officials on both sides are far more cautious. "You don't heal a thousand year split in 40 years of talking, no matter how well-intentioned," says one Orthodox theologian who attended a high-level Catholic-Orthodox congress in Serbia this September.

Evidence from that meeting suggests that discussions are now progressing rapidly, however. At another summit due to take place in Italy next year, experts from both sides will discuss the most difficult issue of all, primacy.

"The Orthodox refuse to accept the Pope's claim to universal supremacy," explains Metropolitan Gennadios of Sissima. "Decision on matters of the faith should depend on one man, but on the assent of all bishops."

Though finding an agreement satisfactory to all would appear impossible, both sides are aware of a certain urgency. Benedict is 79 now. Bartholomew, on the other hand, finds himself at the head of an Istanbul Orthodox community on the brink of extinction.

"Three thousand left, 60 percent of them over 50," says the press secretary Father Dosithios, an Istanbul Greek who spent his adult life in Germany, entering the priesthood on his retirement and returning to Istanbul to help the Patriarchate. "In 20 years, this community will be dead."

Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Posted November 28, 2006 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

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