11/27/2006, 00.00
VATICAN - TURKEY
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The difficult journey of Benedict XVI to Turkey

by Franco Pisano

The main, ecumenical reason for the visit – seeing Bartholomew I – has been taken over by the problem of ties between the West and Islam. The comfort the pope will give the small Christian communities is important, and they hope his advent will mean more religious freedom. There will be the protection of John XXIII, known as the "Turkish pope". From our special correspondent.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The trip to Turkey that Benedict XVI starts tomorrow will be a difficult one. It will be the first visit of Pope Ratzinger to a state with a Muslim population, the third papal trip to the country of the crescent after that undertaken by Paul VI (1967) and John Paul II (1979). The difficulties arise not so much from highly publicized security fears as from world media coverage of possible protests by Muslims, which threatens to overshadow the other significance of the visit. The enormous importance enjoyed by the question of ties between the West and the Muslim world has ensured that this matter – in reality not the main reason for the trip – will dominate, especially after the "lectio magistralis" of Regensburg and Muslim reactions to the same. Government leaders in Turkey joined the fray to criticize the pope's words in that lecture, which is peculiar in a country that makes a constitutional principle out of its secularism. Moreover, such a reaction confirms the substantial attention Turkey is paying to its religious identity at the moment. Further confirmation is provided by the presence of a Muslim party leader, even if "moderate", at government meetings, and the increased number of women who wear a headscarf to go out.

The focus of attention on anti-papal rallies is a lingering problem despite the numbers that protesters have managed to draw to the streets: perhaps 30,000 in Istanbul yesterday, in response to an appeal by the Muslim party Saadet, which was hoping to get one million people. Then there were 100 at the symbolic occupation of Santa Sofia and one man who fired into the air outside the Italian Consulate. However, the fact remains that according to latest polls, only 10% of Turks approve of the pope's visit, while 38% are decidedly against, another 38% are indifferent and 14% preferred not to express their views.

The fact is that the "offence to Islam" felt because of the – barely read – lecture in Regensburg has become intertwined with the "Europe question", that is, with demands put forward by the European Union for Turkey's entry. Thus, European demands like respect for religious freedom, the elimination or radical change of Article 301 of the Criminal Code (held to be contrary to freedom of expression), limiting army interference in public life and, especially, the request to open ports and airports to the hated Republic of Cyprus (an EU member), have been viewed as a "western" – hence sort of "Christian" – imposition. So a nationalist reaction was born in defence of Turkish identity, of which Islam is felt to be a part, contrary to Christianity.

All this may even have pleased the current government were Erdogan not objectively deeply committed to taking Turkey into Europe.

The government attitude has thus taken on contradicting tones and behaviours as it seeks to follow the wave of reactions and press ahead with its programme. On the one hand, in the aftermath of Regensburg, the head of religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, came out against the pope, and Tayyp Erdogan himself criticised his words. The premier, foreign affairs minister and Parliament speaker all made it clear – a while ago – that they would not meet Benedict XVI because of prior engagements abroad, so much so that the Aksam daily published a front page photo of the pope with the caption "The pope is coming, run!" On the other hand however, on the eve of the pope's arrival, the premier said there may be adjustments made to his programme to enable him to see the pontiff.

The second reason – and in reality this was the main objective – for the visit is ecumenical, that of furthering ties with the Orthodox and especially with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the "first in honour" of all the patriarchates. The ecumenical journey, especially with Churches of the East, is high on the agenda of this pontificate, according to what Benedict XVI himself has said. The first invitation to the pope to go to Turkey was made by Patriarch Bartholomew I already last year and it is not by chance that Benedict XVI refused suggestions to change the dates of the trip that "must" be around 30 November, the feast of the apostle Andrew, founder of the Church of the East, as Peter is the founder of that of the West.

The pope and Bartholomew I will meet three times over two days; each will go to the Church of the other to celebrate a ritual, they will have private talks and will sign a joint declaration together. No historic announcements are expected in this document, nor any leaps in the ecumenical journey, but certainly another step ahead is anticipated, not least in the light of deliberations of the now reactivated mixed commission that is tackling theological matters. A few weeks ago, in Belgrade, it even touched upon the fundamental problem of the Petrine Primacy. 

The third reason for the visit is to meet the miniscule Catholic community – a few thousand people – wounded by the murder of Don Andrea Santoro on 5 February last. The meetings with the pope, in Ephesus on 29 November and in Istanbul on 1 December, will surely hearten this community.

Catholics as well as other Christians are hoping that the pope's presence will lead to an improvement in their conditions and those borne by other minorities, which are considerably discriminated against and prevented from exercising religious freedom.

The visit will take place in the overall context of ties with Turkey that returned to diplomatic level only in 1960, thanks to the "Turkish pope", as John XXIII was described in Turkey, since he spent 10 years on the banks of the Bosphorus as papal representative. A statue of his, which will be inaugurated, may serve to reignite the affection with which he is still remembered by Turks. And perhaps it will serve Benedict XVI.

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Pope talks about the Middle East, the Holy Land and the food crisis with Bush
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Pope: trip to Turkey is "pastoral, not political"
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Pope: Church asks only to live in freedom
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