11/28/2006, 00.00
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Pope: trip to Turkey is "pastoral, not political"

by Franco Pisano

In an informal discourse with journalists, Benedict XVI underlined the faith and hope with which he is facing his sensitive trip to Turkey. He said he was for Ankara's entry into Europe. The pope also touched upon the upcoming meeting between the sister Churches of Rome and Constantinople. He was welcomed by Premier Erdogan on arrival. By our special correspondent.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – A dialogue between cultures, between Christianity and Islam and especially between Catholics and Orthodox, and respect for religious freedom. And there is also criticism of secularism, a reality that is far different from "healthy laicity". Standing in the corridor of the plane that bore him to Turkey, Benedict XVI described thus his "pastoral and not political" journey in an informal meeting with journalists who are accompanying him on his visit to the country of the crescent. It was a discourse that started with an unusual emphasis by the pope about the work of journalists.

He said: "Dear friends, journalists, cameramen, all of you, I greet you cordially on this flight and I would like to sincerely express my gratitude for the work you do. I know it is a difficult work, often undertaken in difficult conditions, to inform in a short time about complex and difficult matters, to give a summary and make the essence of what happened and what was said comprehensible. All events reach mankind through your mediation alone, and thus you really undertake a service of great importance for which I am heartily grateful. We know that the aim of this trip is dialogue, fraternity; it is a commitment to understanding between cultures for the meeting of cultures with religions, for reconciliation. We all feel the same responsibility at this difficult point of history and we collaborate, and our work is of great importance. And this is why I say thank you once again."

This journey starting today promises to be one of the most sensitive in the history of modern papal trips due to tensions that have amassed around its ecumenical focus. With what kind of spirit are you facing it?

"I am facing it with great faith and hope. I know that many people are accompanying us with their sympathy and with their prayers. I know too that the Turkish people are a hospitable and open people who desire peace; that Turkey has always been a bridge between cultures and thus it is also a place of encounter and dialogue. I would also like to stress that this is not a political journey, it is a pastoral journey and as such, it is defined and determined by dialogue and a shared commitment to peace. Dialogue in different dimensions: between cultures, dialogue between Christianity and Islam, dialogue with our Christian brothers, especially the Orthodox Church of Constantinople and at the same time, better comprehension between us all. Naturally, we should not exaggerate, great results cannot be expected from three days, I would say the value is symbolic; the fruit of such encounters, of encounters in friendship and respect, this meeting as servants of peace, has its worth. I believe this symbolism of a commitment to peace and brotherhood among peoples to be the outcome of this journey."

You are going to a country with many tensions but also many hopes, that desires to become a European nation. Do you think Europe could help Turkey to speak with more awareness about integration and respect for various cultural and even religious identities?

It may be useful to remember that the Father of modern Turkey, Ataturk, used the French constitution as a model for his reconstruction of Turkey. At the origin of modern Turkey lies dialogue with European reason and its thinking, its way of living, to be realised in a new way in a different historic and religious context. Hence, the dialogue between European reason and Turkish Muslim tradition is inscribed in modern Turkey's very existence and thus, we have a mutual responsibility one towards the other. In Europe, we have a debate between "healthy" laicity and secularism. And I believe this is also important for real dialogue with Turkey. Secularism, that is, a concept that totally separates public life from all values of tradition, is a dead-end road. We must redefine the meaning of a laicity that emphasises and preserves the true difference and autonomy between spheres, but also their coherence, their shared responsibility; only on the bedrock of values that fundamentally find their origin in religion, can laicity live, as well as mutual fertilization. We Europeans must rethink our lay, secularist, reasoning, and Turkey – starting out from its history and its origins – must consider how it should rebuild, for the future, this link between laicity and tradition, between open, tolerant reason, that has freedom as a basic element, and those values that underpin freedom."

The visit to and meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew occupies an important place in this journey. What significance does this have for plans of rapprochement with Christian churches, which You affirmed right from the start of your pontificate?

"Numbers, quantity, do not count: it is the symbolic, historic and spiritual value that counts. And we know that Constantinople is like a second Rome, it has always been a reference point for Orthodoxy, it gave us the great Orthodox Byzantine culture, and it remains a point of reference for all the Orthodox world and hence also for all of Christianity. Thus it is the symbolic value of the Patriarchate of Constantinople that exists, even today; although the Patriarch does not have a jurisdiction as the Pope does, all the same he is a point of orientation for the Orthodox world. It is a meeting with the Patriarch, a meeting with the church of the apostle Andrew, brother of St Peter. It is a meeting of great quality between the two sister churches of Rome and Constantinople, and thus a very important moment in the quest for Christian unity. There are other Christian communities; with all, although they are small but present, we will meet, naturally also with the small Catholic community. Let's say [it is] an event of communion beyond geographical and cultural spheres. In this sense, I think the symbol is not merely something that is empty in itself, but rather it is steeped in reality. This symbolism of Constantinople, and this real, true function of the Patriarch for Orthodoxy, is also very important for the entire ecumenical journey.

I am sorry we could not hold a proper press conference, there is not enough time, but I hope at least I said something that could be useful.

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