Ankara (AsiaNews) Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is "a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends," Benedict XVI said to Muslim leaders when he visited Cologne in August of last year. He repeated the same words today almost to reiterate his opinion on the encounter with Islam, despite any misunderstandings his Regensburg speech might have caused.
The atmosphere that welcomed the Pope in Ankara today is different from that of previous days. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met him at the airport, which he had ruled out until the last moment. And his remarks were definitely positive, centred on cooperation between cultures and on the Pope's respect for Islam.
For his part, Benedict XVI told journalist travelling with him on the plane that Turkey has a key role to play as a bridge between East and West. He also referred to the affection John XXII had for this land as he visited the Atatürk mausoleum, where the founder of modern Turkey is buried. On the Guest Book he wrote: "In this land, meeting place and crossroads of different religions and cultures, hinge between Asia and Europe, I gladly make my own the words of the founder of the Turkish Republic: I wish 'peace at home, peace in the world".
The first day of Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey was dedicated to inter-faith dialogue. In both of his official speeches, the Pope stressed the need to respect religious freedom.
The Pope was received as a "head of state" but beside political leaders and military there was no one to greet him. This was expected in a country still prey to agitation caused by negative Muslim reactions to the Pope.
Along the 45 kilometres that separate the airport from the Atatürk mausoleum, which resembles a Greek temple, there were no smiling faces the Pope could greet from the armoured car that whisked him into town. He saw instead the stony faces of saluting soldiers standing by the side of roads kept under tight control by Turkish security forces.
In the city, amidst the many mosques with their minarets a few veiled women went by their business outnumbered by young women in jeans, their hair brushed by the wind.
At the end of his meeting with the Pope, Prime Minister Erdogan also spoke about dialogue citing the Turkish-Spanish initiative for an alliance between civilisations against the "clash" of civilisations that is on everyone's lips, an initiative, he said, that is backed by the Pope. "Benedict XVI," he added, "agreed with me that Islam is a religion of love and peace".
"We are going through a tough time," he said, "because of a clash of civilisations underway. For this reason I find the Pope's visit to a country that is 95 per cent Muslim, democratic and secular important and significant. His visit is important because it sends to the world a message of tolerance and peace. The Pope agrees with me".
The Prime Minister stated that the Pope expressed his support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union. The Pope's staff clarified the statement saying that the Holy See views favourably a rapprochement between Turkey and Europe and the constructive relationship with Europe but since it [the Holy See] is not a "political" entity it does not have a position on Turkey's application to join the European Union.
Clarification apart, Erdogan's remarks are decidedly more peaceful compared to the harsh words he had right after the Pope's Regensburg speech.
In his meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, chairman of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the Pope expressed respect for Islam and love for Turks, but he also reiterated the need to protect religious freedom.
The meeting with the official who oversees the country's mosques and imams, and who, till recently wanted the Pope to apologise for insulting Islam at Regensburg, was the most awaited event of the day. The grand muftis if Ankara and Istanbul were also present for the occasion.
"I prepared myself to this visit to Turkey," the Pope said, "with the same sentiments as my predecessor, the blessed Jean XXIII, when he came here as archbishop Angelo Roncalli and Pontifical representative in Istanbul [and who said]: 'I feel I love with the Turkish people among whom the Lord has sent me . . . . I love the Turks; I appreciate the natural qualities of this people, which has its ready-made place on the path of civilisation' (Giornale dell'anima, 231.237)".
In what is considered his speech to Islam, Turkish and non Turkish, Benedict XVI said that a dialogue is a "necessity" and that Christians and Muslims can make a great contribution to a world troubled by many problems ranging from poverty to environmental degradation and peace.
"In particular," he added, "we can offer a credible answer to the question that clearly comes out from today's society even though it is often put side, namely the question about the meaning and purpose of life for each and every individual and for the whole of humanity. We are called upon to work together to help society to open up to the transcendental and acknowledge to God Almighty the place He deserves. The best way to go forward is that of an authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims based on the truth and inspired by a sincere desire to better know one another, respecting our differences and acknowledging what we have in common. That will concurrently bring about an authentic respect for responsible choices each person must make, especially when it comes to fundamental values and personal religious convictions."
In these words as Pope, Ratzinger the theologian is vindicated. Attacked for a quote considered offensive to Islam in his "lectio" in Regensburg, he today used another one to talk positively about Muslims and dialogue.
"As an example of brotherly respect with which Christians and Muslims can work together," he said, "I'd like to quote a few words Pope Gregory VII addressed in 1076 to a Muslim prince in North Africa who had been benevolent towards Christians under his rule. Pope Gregory VII spoke of the special charity Christians and Muslims owed each other because 'we believe and confess one God, albeit in different ways. Every day we praise Him and venerate Him as Creator of the centuries and ruler of this world (PL 148, 451)".
Last but not least, the Pope could not avoid talking about freedom of religion.
"When it [religious freedom] is institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected," he said in a country whose EU membership is held up in part because of this issue, "for both individuals and communities, it becomes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to building society, in an attitude of sincere service, especially towards the more vulnerable and the poor".
The Pope returned to this issue in the waning hours of the day when he met, in the Nunciature, about 90 diplomatic representatives accredited in Turkey. To them he said that it "is the fundamental expression of human freedom", insisting that "the active presence of religions in society is factor of progress and enrichment for all. This implies," he noted, "that religions do not try to exercise political power directly, because that is not their role. In particular, they must absolutely renounce any justification of violence as a legitimate religious practice."
His last thought was for "the conflict in the Middle East" which "continues and is dangerously burdening international life with the risk that localised conflicts might widen and terrorism spread."
"I salute," he said, "the efforts of many countries involved today in rebuilding peace in Lebanon, among them Turkey."
"I appeal once more," he concluded, "to the international community to assume its responsibilities and make every effort to promote dialogue among the parties in conflict. Only this can ensure respect towards others whilst safeguarding the parties' legitimate interests and reject any recourse to violence."