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Delicate Papal Visit to Turkey

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: November 27, 2006

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Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey figured to involve some delicate diplomacy even before his remarks on Islam in September created a furor among Muslims. The visit’s original intent was to continue Vatican efforts to achieve “full communion” with its Orthodox Christian brethren by meeting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as to bolster the remnants (CatholicNews) of the Greek Orthodox Christian community in Turkey. The pope is also known in Turkey for his comments about the country’s suitability to join the European Union; as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he questioned whether it made historical sense for Muslim majority Turkey to join the predominantly Christian European Union (CSMonitor).

But it is fallout from Benedict’s speech in the Bavarian city of Regensburg nearly ten weeks ago that poses perhaps the biggest challenge on his trip. In a speech exploring the relationship of faith and reason, the pope quoted a fourtheenth-century Byzantine emperor linking the Prophet Muhammad to “things only evil and inhuman,” including a command to spread the faith through violence. Turkish politicians and clerics denounced the remarks, which sparked demonstrations among Muslims worldwide. The pope has expressed regret for the reaction to his words but no outright apology. On Sunday, more than 20,000 people demonstrated in an Istanbul square, denouncing the pope as anti-Islamic (WashPost). Turkish authorities are reportedly taking extraordinary security measures (Turkish Daily News) for the papal visit. In Turkey, the pope will meet the country’s head of religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, who has repeatedly called Benedict’s words from the September speech “unacceptable.” (Reuters) The pope will also meet Turkey’s president in the course of his four-day trip to Ankara, Ephesus, and Istanbul, which will include a visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

Though Benedict’s eighteen months as pope have contained some surprises, at least to media used to portraying him as the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal bulldog, he is seen as taking a tougher line on Islam than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. That includes a move earlier this year to remove a top expert on Muslim affairs, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, from a Vatican office that promotes dialogue with other religions. But it was his Regensburg speech that marked a break with John Paul’s approach, with Benedict managing to “reanimate the clash-of-civilizations discussion” by focusing on whether Islam sanctions violence, says TIME, which devotes the cover of its latest issue to the pope and Islam. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a religious affairs magazine, says the pope has reaffirmed the church’s continuing dialogue with Islam. At the same, he writes, Benedict will use occasions such as the visit to Turkey to press for greater “reciprocity,” meaning that religious freedom of Muslims in the West should prompt more such freedoms for Christians in Islamic countries.

The National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen, Jr. recommends that the pope appeal for broader religious freedom in Turkey, which could gain support from Muslims chafing at some of the restrictions imposed by the officially secular Turkish state. Otherwise, he writes, Benedict’s calls for reciprocity “risk being misunderstood as merely the latest installment in a centuries-old story of Westerners who don’t have Turkey’s best interests at heart using the status of Christians as a classic ‘Trojan Horse.’” 

Benedict arrives, too, at a time of heightened talks over Turkey’s readiness to join the European Union. The current Turkish government has enacted more reforms than any other to ready the country for EU accession, CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook tells Bernard Gwertzman. But the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Schwartz says Turkey’s “systematic denial of minority ethnic and religious rights” continues to cast doubt on its worthiness to join the European Union in the near term. In the run up to the papal visit, Patriarch Bartholomew has been repeating calls (AP) for the government to reopen a Greek Orthodox school closed thirty-five years ago under a law that put religious training under state control.

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