Papal Trip To Turkey: Key Questions Test Benedict’s Pontificate

By John Thavis

Catholic News Service
Nov 21 2006

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey in late
November, a four-day visit aimed at building bridges with Islam,
reaffirming dialogue with Orthodox Christians and encouraging a tiny
Catholic minority in a Muslim country.

The Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip was first envisioned as an ecumenical event,
but interreligious issues have taken center stage. The pope’s remarks
about Islam at the University of Regensburg in September upset many
Muslims, and Turkey will offer the pope a platform to explain his
views to the Islamic world.

It will be the pope’s fifth visit outside Italy and his first to a
country with a Muslim majority. He arrives in Ankara for meetings
with government officials, goes to the historic site of Ephesus for
Mass, and closes out his visit with Orthodox and Catholic communities
in Istanbul.

Situated where Asia and Europe meet, Turkey has for centuries been
a place where Islamic cultures met the "Christian" West — often in
conflict, as at the time of the Crusades. In the current climate of
global cultural and religious tensions, that makes the papal visit
all the more significant.

"It’s an extremely important trip," said Father Justo Lacunza Balda,
an official of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies
in Rome.

"There are so many issues that touch Turkey, including dialogue
with Muslims, cultural and religious identity, the future of Europe,
church-state relations, religious freedom and ecumenism. The pope’s
visit is a sign of respect for the country and a sign that these
issues need to be discussed," he said.

On several levels, the trip represents a test of Pope Benedict’s
18-month-old pontificate. Vatican officials believe the results will
hinge on answers to some key questions:

— Can the pope begin to heal the recent rift with Islam, while still
engaging Muslims in honest dialogue on crucial issues — including
the question of faith and violence?

— Can the pope get a hearing from the Turkish population and
government hosts when he speaks about the importance of religious
freedom and human rights in a modern democracy?

— When he meets with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of
Constantinople, will the pope simply be keeping up a tradition, or
can he use the encounter to generate ecumenical momentum and direction?

Pope Benedict knows how important this trip is, and he’s showing it by
taking along five top Vatican cardinals, including those responsible
for interreligious and ecumenical dialogue.

The tone of the visit may become clear on the opening day, when
the pope meets with government officials and diplomats in Ankara,
the Turkish capital.

On his way into the city from the airport, the pope will make a brief
but significant stop at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of
modern Turkey. The pope is expected to write a sentence or two in the
guest book, and his words may offer a thematic clue to the visit —
especially on the issue of church-state relations.

At the Ankara State Guest House, the pope will be greeted by President
Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The absence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
who will be out of the country at a NATO summit, has been seen as
a snub by many observers, but Vatican officials say the scheduling
conflict was known for months.

One of the most interesting encounters of the first day will be the
pope’s meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, the head of Turkey’s directorate
of religious affairs. After the Regensburg speech, Bardakoglu sharply
criticized the pope’s remarks on Islam and said the pontiff should
"rid himself of feelings of hate" and apologize. He later accepted
the pope’s expression of regret.

Both the pope and Bardakoglu will deliver speeches. Church officials
hope it will be an opportunity for mending bridges and looking ahead,
rather than a revival of the recent polemics. Bardakoglu, in fact,
has said he doesn’t intend to bring up the Regensburg speech unless
the pope does.

At the Vatican, sources say they expect the pope to present a strongly
positive message, communicating his respect for Muslim believers and
his appreciation for the values of Turkish society and indicating
common ground in the idea that civil society cannot exclude God.

On Nov. 29 the pope will say Mass at a Marian sanctuary near Ephesus,
a center of early Christianity that St. Paul used as a missionary
base. The shrine, called the House of the Virgin, is believed by
some to be the place where Mary lived at the end of her life and is
visited by some 3 million pilgrims each year — most of them Muslims,
according to church sources.

The pope lands in Istanbul later Nov. 29, and the focus of the visit
turns ecumenical. He will attend a prayer service that evening at
the headquarters of Patriarch Bartholomew and will return there for
a major liturgy to mark the Nov. 30 feast of St. Andrew the Apostle,
the patron saint of the patriarchate. The pope and patriarch will then
sign a joint declaration on the continuing search for Christian unity.

Vatican and Orthodox officials don’t want the ecumenical side of the
Turkey trip to be overlooked.

"We are very unhappy with the fact that people are only talking
about the interreligious aspect. The main purpose of the trip remains
ecumenical, and we hope it will bring a new impetus and enthusiasm
for dialogue with the Orthodox churches," said Cardinal Walter Kasper,
the Vatican’s top ecumenist.

The pope also will visit the heads of the Syrian Orthodox and Armenian
Orthodox churches in Turkey and will meet privately with Turkey’s
chief rabbi in Istanbul.

In a visit that was rescheduled from a Friday to Thursday in order
not to risk offending Muslims on their day of prayer, the pope will
tour the Hagia Sophia Museum — an architectural masterpiece that
began as an Orthodox church, was transformed into a mosque in the
15th century and became a museum in 1935.

The pope’s final day is dedicated to Turkey’s tiny Catholic
minority, estimated to number about 33,000 — about .05 percent of
the population.

He will say Mass in Istanbul’s small Cathedral of the Holy Spirit;
those who can’t squeeze into the church can watch the liturgy on
screens in the courtyard of the nearby Church of St. Anthony.

Throughout the visit, the pope is likely to highlight the church’s
deep roots in Turkey. Asia Minor was visited by apostles and was home
to church fathers, and every ecumenical council during Christianity’s
first millennium was held on what is now Turkish territory.

At some point, the pope also is expected to remember the sacrifice
of a modern evangelizer: Father Andrea Santoro, an Italian missionary
who was shot and killed by a 16-year-old Muslim last February.

Both Orthodox and Catholic leaders hope the papal visit will boost
their ongoing efforts for recognition of religious rights. Catholic
officials, for example, have been pressing for legal recognition of
the Latin-rite church, which has no juridical status in Turkey.

Turkey’s Constitution protects freedom of conscience, but the
country’s brand of secularism controls all religious activity and
keeps an especially tight rein on religious minorities.

Church leaders are hoping that Turkey’s projected entry into the
European Union will provide leverage for greater protection of their
rights. But that could backfire; European pressure on human rights
is thought to be one reason for a recent decline in support for EU
entry among Turks.

If the pope does address the religious liberty issue, he may choose
to cite Turkey’s own Constitution, rather than ask the country to
meet European standards.

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