COMMENTARY
 
Pope’s Turkish Visit to Bridge Religious Divide
Weekly Pulse
December 1-7, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey may help bridge the growing divide between Islam and Christianity, to which the Pope himself had contributed by making an anti-Islamic remark in September. The decision by the head of the Roman Catholic Church to go ahead with the four-day visit despite earlier protests by Turkish Islamists shows the Vatican’s willingness to make amends with the world of Islam.

In a September 12 lecture at Regensburg University in Germany, the Pope had quoted the 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who wrote that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had brought things “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The Pope had said that faith had to be joined with reason, a link he implied that Islam lacked.

Pope Benedict’s remarks infuriated the Muslim people across the world—so much so that within two days, Ali Bardakoglu, head of the Turkish Directorate General for Religious Affairs, asked the Pope to apologize for comments and reconsider his plans to visit Turkey.

Conciliatory Gestures

It was only after the German-born Pope and the Vatican, on his behalf, issued successive conciliatory gestures that Turkey’s top religious leader finally said on November 15 that “the Pope’s visit would help improve relations with Muslims.” However, he did say that the visit would “not heal wounds from his remarks.”

For his part, Pope Benedict has said “he was deeply sorry Muslims had been offended by his use of a medieval quotation on Islam and violence.” He has also received envoys from 20 Muslim countries as well as leaders of Italy’s own Muslim community. The Pope has described the scope of the visit as “dialogue, brotherhood, a commitment for understanding between cultures, between religions, for reconciliation.”

Due to its peculiar location and history, Turkey itself is a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West. The secular character of the Turkish state and its aspiration for European Union (EU) membership are two factors that signify Turkey’s pivotal position in bridging the Christian-Muslim divide.

Another reason for the Turkish public opposition to the Pope’s visit could be his opposition to Turkey’s EU membership, a view he expressed before becoming the Pope. In 2004, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict had given a controversial interview arguing that Europe's roots are Christian, and that a Muslim country—that is, Turkey—would not fit in.

Just as his September remark added to the Muslim-Christian divide, Pope Benedict’s personal position on Turkey’s EU membership also potentially contributes to this divide. This is because Turkey’s EU membership is considered as perhaps the most important step in the direction of Christian-Islamic or Muslim-Western/European harmony.

Turkish Divide

Turkey itself is divided between the forces which see the country’s destiny towards the Muslim East, and those who are charting its future towards the Christian West. But each time when some European governments attempt to deny or delay Turkey’s European quest, it only strengthens public perception in Turkey that they do so because of religious reasons.

Given that, the success of the forces of secularism and democracy depends very upon its quest for EU membership. Therefore, it is not just the Vatican but the entire EU leadership that has to change its attitude towards Turkey. At least from what the Turkish Premier told the press after his short meeting with the Pope on Tuesday it is clear that the latter has also reconsidered his personal position on Turkey’s EU membership question.

Prime Minister Erdogan said, “He told me, ‘We want Turkey to be part of the EU,’” For his part, the Pope told the press that “Turkey was a democratic, Islamic country and a bridge... I wanted to come to Turkey since becoming Pope because I love this culture.”

It was good that the Pope managed to chart a reconciliatory course right from the start of his visit. For instance, after seeing the Turkish premier, he laid wreath at the Mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of modern secular Turkey. He told Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer that Christians and Muslims enjoyed “a mutual respect” based on the importance they attached to the sacred and “the dignity of the person.”

Pope Benedict also recalled that one his predecessors, Gregory VII, had told a North African Muslim prince in the eleventh century that they both worshipped “the one God.” The Pope’s engagements in Turkey themselves indicate the visit’s significance in bridging the Christian-Muslim divide.

He traveled to celebrate mass at Ephesus, the ancient city where St Paul lived for three years and where the Virgin Mary is said to have lived after the death of the Christ. Pope Benedict also visited Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Mosque—known as the Blue Mosque—when he came to see the Aya Sofya museum. This marked the second papal visit to a mosque, after John Paul II prayed in Damascus in 2001.

Istanbul also has the main Orthodox Christian Church, and the Pope’s visit to Turkey was originally intended to reconcile Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. However, it was overshadowed by the wider unease surrounding Christianity and Islam.

In a sense, Turkey is also acting as a place for bridging the historic divide between Christianity’s two main sects. In Istanbul, the Pope was welcomed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Practical Steps

Pope Benedict XVI was elected in April 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II after prolonged illness. His anti-Islamic remarks aside, the Pope has taken practical steps in bridging the Muslim-Christian divide.

In February, for instance, he had appointed British Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald as the chief papal emissary to Egypt and delegate to the Arab League. In March, he assigned French Cardinal Paul Poupard, the culture minister, the additional responsibility of heading the department for dialogue with non-Christian religions, particularly Islam.

In August 2005, the Pope, himself of German origin, had told Muslim leaders in Germany that Christian-Muslim dialogue was “a vital necessity on which in large measure our future depends.” On March 16, he repeated this message, by saying that Christians, Jews and Muslims must work together to promote peace and teach respect for religions and their symbols.

Pope Benedict also condemned the publication of blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Danish and other European newspapers, saying, “Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in one God...It follows, therefore, that all three monotheistic religions are called to cooperate with one another for the common good of humanity, serving the case of justice and peace in the world.”

The possible momentum that the Pope’s visit to Turkey may build vis-à-vis bridging the Christian-Muslim divide has to sustained by the leadership in the Muslim world and the West.

Alliance of Civilizations

On behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference and EU, respectively, Turkey and Spain are already engaged in a UN Secretary-General sponsored initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations. The scope of the initiative must be broadened, both in terms of representation and range of issues.

There is an urgent need to create institutional mechanisms and linkages to prevent Islamophobia in Western Europe in particular and the Western world in general. With particular reference to Turkey, the Pope’s visit will carry no value if a section of the EU world does not change its biased attitude towards the Muslim world most secular and democratic nation.

While a broader-level harmony between the Muslim world and the West is the need of the hour in the post-9/11 world, what matter the most are the practical steps clearly visible on the ground.

One such step is to include, as fast as possible, Turkey in the EU. A Muslim nation with a pivotal geographical location and history, inside a predominantly Christian world will be the starting point towards the coexistence among three revealed faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.