Interview with Fr. Tom Michel on Benedict's Turkey visit

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Rome

Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, an American, is a veteran of Christian/Muslim relations and a longtime observer of the Turkish scene. When he worked at the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Michel was the Vatican’s point person on Islam, and he now heads the Jesuit office for inter-religious affairs. He teaches regularly in Turkey. I spoke to Michel today in Ankara ahead of Pope Benedict’s arrival.

What’s the mood in Turkey today regarding the pope’s trip?
It’s a mixed bag. Some people on the street are still kind of angry about what the pope said in Regensburg. Others are hoping that the trip will be an opportunity for reconciliation. You hear things both ways. To some extent, it depends upon what someone’s general attitude is towards the West and towards the future of Turkey.

Were you surprised by anything in yesterday’s rally in opposition to the pope’s trip?
No, there weren’t any surprises. To be honest, nobody is talking very much about it. The only curiosity about it I’ve run into comes from journalists. It was not a big event. It didn’t really change anything, and I don’t think anybody’s attitude was changed.

In your view, what’s the key to making this trip a success?
I’ve heard that the Turkish Department of Religious Affairs will present the pope with a package of proposals to move forward in the dialogue. In fact, they may offer him several packages, and let him choose the one he wants. If so, that’s an important thing. In the original planning of this trip, it did not look like the pope would meet the Department of Religious Affairs, and it’s certainly positive that in the end he’ll meet them. They’re the official department that handles religious matters, and they can make life much easier or much harder depending on their approach. They can create new bureaucratic obstacles, or they can free things up. It’s important to have them on board. When John Paul II and the Vatican organized prayer meetings in Assisi, it was the Department of Religious Affairs that sent people.

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What message do you think Benedict needs to deliver in Turkey?
He should reaffirm once again, because he’s already done it several times, the commitment of the Catholic Church to engage in serious dialogue with Muslims. It’s important that he say it here. There are still questions among some Muslims about whether the pope’s speech in Regensburg signaled a drawing back from commitment to dialogue. It’s important he make the point that this commitment is irreversible.

Will Turks be expecting him to say something about the European Union?
I don’t think they’re expecting it. Of course, they’d be delighted if he were to say something [positive], but by and large people understand that’s not what he’s here for. I don’t hear from people that they’re expecting it.

What’s the significance of Benedict’s visit to the Blue Mosque?
I don’t know that it has so much significance in any religious sense. It’s not more important than other Turkish mosques, although it is more beautiful. For Turks, I suppose the basic significance is that this is a place of which they’re very proud. Spiritually, though, it’s not more important than anywhere else.
It’s not a first, because John Paul II already entered a mosque in Damascus in 2001, correct?
Even that wasn’t a first, because John Paul had visited a mosque in Senegal before [in 1992].
Did he enter the mosque on that occasion?
Yes, the meeting was held right inside the mosque.

In your view, what’s the most important moment on the pope’s calendar?
The first talk tomorrow is the really important one. It will set the tone. If he seems cold or distant, then the Turks will be cold. Even worse, if he’s finger-wagging, the Turks will get their backs up and things could be worse than ever. But if he’s warm and welcoming, I think the Turks will respond overwhelmingly. The Turks are always concerned about giving a good impression. They’ll be watching carefully, that’s for sure. I think they want the trip to come off well, and they want the pope to be friendly. They want this to succeed, apart from a few typical soreheads. Turkish national pride is very strong, they’re very proud of their history and tradition of hospitality, and they want to show it off.

Can Benedict succeed in Turkey without a direct apology for Regensburg?
I think it would be helpful, and people would like it if he did, but I don’t think he will.

What else could contribute to making the trip a success?
If the Department of Religious Affairs does make some sort of proposal to the pope, and if he accepts it, that would be important. It could be for something like academic exchanges of students and teachers, or perhaps a joint commission of some sort. That would be a very positive signal.


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