On day one, Benedict adopts 'soft tone' in Turkey

Ankara, Turkey

Coming into his Nov. 28- Dec. 1 Turkey trip, it seemed the tightrope Benedict XVI would have to walk would run between affirming his challenge to Muslims on terrorism and reciprocity, while at the same time convincing them of his sincere desire for good brotherly relations.

So far, Benedict still seems to be walking that rope, though his instinct appears to be that if he has to err in one direction or the other, it’s going to be in the direction of good will.

Improbably, it was the Lebanese Ambassador to Turkey who provided the day’s tagline when he complimented Benedict for his “soft tone” in his welcome to the pope in a Tuesday evening session with the diplomatic corps in Ankara. Ambassador Georges H. Siam said that softness should create the basis for a “promising journey.”

Throughout day one, the pope missed no opportunity to stress his desire for good relations. In his speech at the Religious Affairs Directorate, for example, he expressed “profound esteem for all the people of this great country,” and greeted Turkish Muslims “with particular esteem and affectionate regard.” Invoking the memory of the late Pope John XXIII, who served for ten years in Turkey as apostolic delegate, Benedict said he’s eager for “sincere exchange between friends.”

Benedict’s decision to physically visit the offices of the Religious Affairs Directorate, known in Turkey as the Diyanet, was itself seen as a gesture of respect, since most often dignitaries come to the pope for such encounters.

Five cardinals accompanied the pope: Tarcisio Bertone, Secretariat of State; Paul Poupard, President of the Council for Culture and the Council for Inter-religious Dialogue; Roger Etchegaray, emeritus President of the Council for Justice and Peace; Igance Moussa Daoud, Prefect of the Council for Oriental Churches; and Walter Kasper, President of the Council for Christian Unity.

In his meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, head of the Diyanet, Benedict indicated that the Catholic Church wants to move forward with the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its vision of dialogue and openness to the other great religions of the world.

He also told Bardakoglu that his decision in May to appoint Poupard as president of botht he Council for Culture and for Inter-religious Dialogue was not a way to “diminish” the latter, but to “integrate” and “reinforce” the work of both offices.

In what seemed almost a deliberate counter-point to his infamous quotation from a 14th century Byzantine emperor at the University of Regensburg, Benedict this time cited an 11th century pope, Gregory VII, who said to a Muslim prince in 1076 that Christians and Muslims owe charity to one another “because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.”

Benedict was careful when referring to God to use constructions such as “the Almighty” and “Merciful,” respecting Muslim sensitivities.

To date, his Turkish hosts have reciprocated the upbeat tone. To date, no one has explicitly referred to Benedict’s Regensburg address, though Lombardi told reporters that he thought he heard echoes of some Muslim reaction to the speech, especially in terms of the relationship between Islam and reason, in Bardakoglu’s remarks to the pope.

Yet in his later address to the diplomatic corps in Turkey, Benedict returned to the two themes which have formed the core of his message to Muslims: the need to reject terrorism, and the need for “reciprocity,” meaning religious freedom.

“The civil authorities of every democratic country are duty bound to guarantee the effective freedom of all believers and to permit them to organize freely the life of their religious communities,” he said. “I am certain that religious liberty is a fundamental expression of human liberty and that the active presence of religions in society is a source of progress and enrichment for all.”

It’s noteworthy that Benedict chose to raise the religious freedom issue in his meeting with ambassadors rather than at the Religious Affairs Directorate, where it might have seemed a more direct compliant about his host nation.

Turkey’s tiny Christian population (roughly 100,000 in a country of 71 million) suffers under a variety of restrictions, both de jure and de facto. Perhaps most notably, the Patriarch of Constantinople has been unable to train his own clergy at the historic Halki Seminary, which has been closed by order of the Turksih government since 1971.

Benedict also issued a clear warning that religions should shun direct political power, a point with special relevance in a country that features several Islamic political parties, and insisted that religious leaders must “utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion.”

In some ways, Benedict appeared to echo some of the warnings he and his predecessor, John Paul II, have issued to former states of the Soviet sphere now making their way into the EU, namely to avoid an exaggerated secularism that would assign religion to a purely private sphere.

In the context of both European and Turkish debates over secularism, Benedict affirmed the legitimacy of church/state separation, but argued that religious believers nevertheless have a legitimate political contribution to make in defense of human dignity, especially of the most vulnerable.

Even in the context of a speech that contained some indirect challenges for Turkey and for Muslim societies generally, however, Benedict took pains to describe himself as “a friend and as an apostle of dialogue and peace.”

“On the occasion of my visit to Turkey, I wish to reiterate my great esteem for Muslims,” the pope said to the diplomats. The pope said that people must be encouraged “to assert their historical and cultural differences not for the sake of confrontation, but in order to foster mutual respect.”

Benedict also surveyed the international situation, saying recent developments with terrorism have illustrated the need to strengthen international institutions and to give them the means to prevent conflict and to create neutral zones between belligerents.

The pope mentioned the Middle East and Lebanon as conflict zones of particular concerned, and called upon the international community not to abandon its responsibility in the region.

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