09/15/2006, 00.00

Islamic nationalists in Turkey protest against visit of Benedict XVI

by Mavi Zambak

The media shrouded the trip to Germany in silence, broken only to refer to a citation against Islam used by Pope Ratzinger, indicated as an example of what can be expected from the visit of an anti-Islamic in Turkey. The details of the papal trip have been laid down.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – The Turkish media has lifted the veil of silence in which it had thus far shrouded the visit of Benedict XVI to Turkey at the end of November. Today, the pope was given ample coverage, to maintain that the Muslim world wants his apologies for "linking Islam and violence". Recently, Mgr Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, had predicted what was to come. "As they did with the death and funeral of John Paul II," he said, "the mass media will put the heaviest accent on mere details and I fear the deep, significant meaning of his visit down here will not be truly revealed. Certainly those who do not seek dialogue but opposition, and the confirmation of their ideas and calumnies, will be able to come up with some action or expression to reignite anti-Christian propaganda, which has been finding ever more encouragement in recent months." Thus, newspapers and television did not mention the pope's visit to Germany but now they have extrapolated the phrase quoted by the Pope: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." They have done so to spark a controversy about Benedict XVI, the anti-Islamic conservative pope... and about what can be expected from his coming to Turkey.

So far, the climax was the publication of a novel last May, which was already in its second edition by the end of August. The book ranks as one of Turkey's bestsellers on the Internet and it looks like it will soon be sold out again. The title is significant: "Assassinating the Pope: Who will kill Benedict XVI in Istanbul?"

More than 300 pages long, the novel, written by Yucel Kaya, a crime-story writer, is about international intrigues of the Opus Dei, P2 and Turkish secret services – all against, according to the author, the union of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The upshot of the intrigues is that Italian journalist, Oriano Ciroella, murders the pope during his first visit to Turkey. This novel is just one more of many spy stories a la The Da Vinci Code, which have become so fashionable in recent years, but as the Apostolic Vicar in Istanbul, Mgr Louis Pelatre, said: "All this is sad and worrying at the same time".

The storyline of the novel, that includes real and circumstantial references, highlights prevalent contradictions in Turkish society. One sector of society is looking towards democracy and western values with increasing openness and interest, thus seeking cultural dialogue with Europe. But pitted against this sector is an anti-western fringe group, which has recently made anti-Christian propaganda practically an obligation.

There have already been instances where propaganda has driven fragile and fanatical minds to carry out misguided actions, like the murder of Don Andrea Santoro on 5 February and the stabbing of Fr Pierre in July this year. One hopes this book will not contribute to putting strange ideas in the head of some new Alì Agca and that it will not provoke further escalation of intolerance against the Christian minority.

The Apostolic Nuncio, Mgr Antonio Lucibello, is calm: "We must see this account for what it is. It is a literary fiction and we must take it as such. We are confident and prudent, because we are counting on the Turkish government, which is doing its utmost to guarantee the greatest security possible for the pope, organizing his visit down to the minutest details."

The programme of the apostolic voyage is now official and on Monday 18 September, members of the Bishops' Conference of Turkey will come together in Istanbul to define the final logistical details.

Two pieces of news have leaked out: the first is about a one-day extension of the pontiff's visit to the land of the Crescent: he will be in Istanbul on 1 December as well (the previous dates were from 28 to 30 November), a day added only at the last minute. Mgr Padovese explained why: "The Pope realized that time was too tight and that particularly, there was no meeting with Catholic believers on the schedule. And they themselves complained because the organizers of the trip did not manage to fix an appointment just for them on the Holy Father's packed agenda. So the morning of Friday 1 December will be dedicated especially to them, they will be able to meet the pontiff and attend Mass presided over by him, which will be held in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, obviously in the presence of all the religious authorities and bishops of Turkey."

And at the end of his trip, on the same day, Benedict XVI will visit the historical museum of Santa Sofia. The imposing Basilica which until 1453 was the most sublime symbol of Christianity in the East was a church for 916 years, then a mosque and finally, deconsecrated by order of AtaTurk in 1935, it became a museum. It is still an object of controversy for nationalists who claim it as a place of Islamic worship. The planned visit has baffled Turks who are fearful that the Pontiff may want to stake a Christian claim there, or expect to pray inside. The visit will be a private one, bearing in mind that the place is a museum and should be respected as such, in line with the will of those who made it so, thus guaranteeing access to all believers but without public religious manifestations.

The other novelty is a stop in Ephesus, precisely at the House of Our Lady, on 29 November. It had been speculated that he may spend this day between meetings, with the civil authorities in Ankara and religious ones in Istanbul, in Trabzon. This is the city on the Black Sea where Don Andrea Santoro was killed last winter, a tragic event that unblocked the invitation to the Pope from the president of the Republic of Turkey. Another possibility mooted was Antioch – a city in southern Turkey, where for the first time, the disciples of Jesus were called Christians – where he would have been able to give a strong signal of ecumenical dialogue, meeting at the same time the five patriarchs of the East that hold the name of "Antiochians" (Greek Orthodox – Syrian Orthodox – Melchite – Maronite – Syrian Catholic).

However, Meryem Ana was chosen, the small house at the top of a hill on the Aegean Sea, where tradition has it that Mary lived out the last years of her life, and from where she was assumed into heaven. The pontiff will go to pray at this national Marian shrine, continuing in the tradition of his predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II.

Then there are the other significant stops. The first day (28 November) will be dedicated to political authorities: the welcome ceremony will not be at the airport of Ankara but at the presidential palace, where the pope will meet the Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. And he will also have a private meeting with the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the diplomatic corps. On the way, he will also go to the mausoleum of Ataturk, to pay homage to the father of Turkey, founded in 1923 on the ruins of the old and decadent Ottoman Empire.

On the evening of 29 November, the pontiff will have a private audience with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I. After prayers in the patriarchal church of St George on 30 November, the feast of St Andrew, the Holy Father will attend a solemn divine liturgy presided over by the Patriarch, and at the end a joint statement will be signed.

"The contents of this statement are unknown," said Mgr Padovese. "But surely it will be another step in ecumenical dialogue, in the quest for unity, already started with the resumption of deliberations last autumn of the Commission of Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, desired by John Paul II during his visit to Turkey in 1979."

This dialogue, which has been extended also to all the sister Churches of the East, will see another significant gesture in the visit of the Pontiff to Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch, pastor of a Christian community that has always been present in Turkey and which despite everything, remains numerous and vibrant.

This apostolic voyage, set to have a strong ecumenical impact, is fervently anticipated by all Christians. The Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia said: "Surely this visit will be a precious opportunity to animate the Christian community in awareness of their identity and at the same time to demonstrate the nearness and interest of the Holy Father as regards the plight of the Churches of Turkey. This is the first visit of the Pontiff to a country with a Muslim majority but inspired by secularism. The pope's will be a strong voice that will not speak not only to Turkey but to the whole world, about ties between Islam and Christianity and the discomfort that today, perhaps more than ever, afflicts Christians in this land and all the Middle East."

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See also
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Pope: trip to Turkey is "pastoral, not political"