Convincing the Turks to smile upon ecumenism


During yesterday’s anti-pope rally in Istanbul, one of the more distinctive banners showed a coiled serpent with two heads, one Pope Benedict XVI and the other Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, above this slogan: “The Pope and the Patriarch … Where’s Turkish society? We don’t want the pope in Turkey.”

Admittedly, turn-out at the rally was far below the hundreds of thousands projected by organizers, perhaps as few as 15,000 people. Admittedly too, most Turks are not Islamic radicals and are largely supportive of a moderate, pro-Western direction for their country.

Nevertheless, the iconography of that banner touches something primal in the Turkish consciousness, specifically a deep fear of a joint Catholic/Orthodox axis operating against Muslim interests.

For centuries, Byzantine emperors “played the Roman card” in times of crisis to try to hold various Islamic threats at bay. The Byzantine emperor Manuel I actually left this deathbed advice to his son: “Whenever the Turks begin to be troublesome, send embassies to the West at once, offer to accept union, and protract negotiations to great length; the Turks so greatly fear such union that they will become reasonable.” (Manuel added in a memorable post-script: “Still, the union will not be accomplished because of the enmity of the Latin nations!”)

It’s no accident that the last serious attempt at East/West reunion, the 15th century Council of Florence, occurred just as the storm clouds were gathering that eventually led to the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman armies under Mehmet II. In fact, it was the collapse of efforts to put Eastern and Western Christianity back together at Florence which emboldened Mehmet to strike the ancient Byzantine capital. Once he was satisfied that no papal flotilla would be crossing the Sea of Marmara to come to Byzantium’s rescue, he knew the Ottoman hour had come.

(The perceived failure of the pope to assist more vigorously in the defense of Constantinople, by the way, was and remains an enormous source of Orthodox resentment. “We received as much aid from Rome as had been sent to us by the sultan of Cairo,” the Byzantine diplomat George Sphrantzes fumed at the time.)

For most of the rest of Ottoman history, facing Russia to the north, Greece to the East, and Italy and the rest of Western Christendom just across the Mediterranean, fear of a pan-Christian offensive was the primary bogeyman that kept the sultans awake at night. As Roger Crowley wrote in 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West: “Fear of Christian unity had always been one of the guiding principles of Ottoman foreign policy.”

Even today, just as some diplomats fret over the possibility of a pan-Islamic alliance of nations that could threaten Western interests, many Turks and other Muslims entertain similar worries about what real reunion among Western and Eastern Christians could mean for Muslims.

This, experts agree, represents an important part of the subtext to Pope Benedict XVI’s meetings over the next few days with Bartholomew I and other representatives of Orthodoxy. In the West, the ecumenical movement by and large seems a laudatory, if sometimes anodyne, effort to overcome old hurts. Hence images of pope and patriarch shoulder-to-shoulder instinctively suggest fraternity and healing. For Turks, however, such imagery is far more ambiguous, hinting at the possibility of a new East/West alliance opposing their interests. One conspiracy theory currently making the rounds in Turkey is that Benedict intends to help Bartholomew set up a Vatican-esque, sovereign city-state inside Istanbul.

All this suggests that Benedict faces yet another rhetorical high-wire act in Turkey. Given how important ecumenical progress is to him, especially with the Orthodox, he’ll want to do everything possible to advance East/West reconciliation. At the same time, however, he’ll need to reassure Turks (and, more broadly, Muslims) that putting divided Christianity back together is not about opening a new front in a “Clash of Civilizations” with Islam.

Indeed, Benedict’s winning pitch might well be to argue that the unity he seeks is not exclusively intra-Christian. The task of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity is in a sense part of a bigger picture, of trying to unite all religious believers in a common struggle against secularization and the progressive exclusion of religion from public affairs, especially in Europe.

By reframing the question in that fashion, Benedict XVI might be able to accomplish what centuries of sultans, emperors, popes and patriarchs never could – convincing the Turks to smile upon Christian unity.

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