Turkey Poses Daunting Tests for Benedict

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

Turkey Poses Daunting Tests for Benedict


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


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 founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, 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 Papadoponlos 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 Yucel 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. …

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