Pope's success in Turkey a matter of definition

Analysis: Is the Turkey trip a success?


For much of yesterday and today, reporters covering Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey, his first to a majority Muslim state, asked one question above all: Has it been a success?

It's an understandable query, given the tumult that resulted from the pope’s Sept. 12 comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg, which touched off a firestorm of Muslim protest and threatened to cast a shadow on this trip.

Determining how Benedict has done do far requires, in the first place, defining the purpose of the visit. If it was to get the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam back on track in the wake of the outrage generated by Regensburg, then in large measure one would have to say the trip so far has been a smash.

By effectively endorsing Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union, Benedict XVI cleared one of the major stumbling blocks in the relationship. (Not to mention reversing his own private opinion as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that Turkey is “in permanent contrast” to Europe and ought to play a role in the Islamic world instead). By repeatedly stressing his affection and esteem for Muslims, and his desire for peace, brotherhood, and dialogue, Benedict sent all the right signals to Muslim public opinion.

The Turkish press has been positive in its coverage, and threatened protests have so far largely failed to materialize. One major Turlish newspaper headlined its day-one story, "It's a beautiful start."

Although the hard work of defining what exactly this new phase of dialogue will look like remains to be done, over its first two days Benedict’s Turkey swing seems to have generated a wave of good will on all sides.

Of course, one could argue that producing smiles on this trip has been somewhat like shooting fish in a barrel, given the powerful incentives both sides feel they have in making it work. Benedict wants to convince the Muslim “street” that he’s a friend, while the Turks want to persuade the world that they’re a modern, sophisticated nation open to pluralism and thus ready to join Europe.

In that sense, this game was always Benedict’s to lose.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world has likely been strengthened by virtue of this experience, and given the centrality of Islam in global affairs, that’s no mean feat.

Yet if the point of the trip was somehow to continue the conversation Benedict intended to open at Regensburg – about the relationship between reason and faith, especially in Islam, and its twin applications to the issues of terrorism and religious freedom, then it’s much less clear what so far has been accomplished.

Benedict did raise terrorism and religious freedom in an address to diplomats accredited to Ankara on Tuesday evening, but in indirect fashion. The fact that he chose to raise the issues in a meeting with diplomats representing governments from all over the world, as opposed to during his meeting at the Religious Affairs Directorate, took the focus off Turkey and Islam with respect to these concerns.

(As if to make the point, one of the first ambassadors to be introduced to the pope represented Venezuela, where the Catholic Church enjoys sometimes rocky relations with the government of President Hugo Chavez.)

It’s instructive than the Turkish press today largely ignored the pope’s challenge on religious freedom, even though it’s very much a live issue in this officially secular but overwhelmingly Muslim society, still struggling to make room for its religious minorities (including the embattled community of roughly 100,000 Christians). Instead, the day’s headline was the pope’s “placet” for Turkey’s EU candidacy.

In his homily today during a Mass in Ephesus, Benedict XVI was oblique in his reference to religious freedom issues, confining himself to a quick allusion to “the many challenges and difficulties” Christians face daily – pointedly not spelling them out.

Towards the end, Benedict alluded to Fr. Andrea Santoro as a witness to the faith, but without mentioning that the Italian missionary was shot to death in the Black Sea town of Trazbon on Feb. 15 by a young Muslim shouting “God is great!” who said he was acting in response to the Danish cartoon controversy.

The bulk of his homily was devoted to a paean to the Blessed Virgin Mary, at a site some forms of Christian tradition regard as the “house” of Mary. (The official trip book put out by Vatican Radio notes that there is no archaeological proof that Mary ever lived here, but the site has nevertheless been rendered sacred by centuries of devotion. It has the unique distinction of being perhaps the only Marian shrine that draws as many Muslim pilgrims as Christians.)

Strikingly, in his first meeting this evening with Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Phanar, Benedict XVI was mute about the restrictions and forms of second-class citizenship that Orthodox Christians face in Turkey. Bartholomew presides over a tiny flock estimated at some 2,000 souls, 60 percent of whom are over the age of 50, and is hemmed in by various forms of de jure and de facto discrimination, including a ban on running his own seminary at Halki. (The seminary has been shuttered by order of the Turkish government since 1971).

In general, Turkish authorities refuse to recognize any “ecumenical” role for the Patriarch of Constantinople, styling him simply as the head of the local Greek-Cypriot Christian flock.

Still, some Orthodox observers believe the pope’s mere presence represents a major boon for the patriarch in a hostile climate.

“Sometimes when you’re living in the shadows of religious asphyxiation, a brother coming from the West can bring light to the East,” said Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, an official of the Ecumenical Patriarch based in New York.

“Peter has come to give strength to his older brother,” Karloutsos told NCR on the margins of the liturgy celebrated by Benedict and Bartholomew this evening, describing its impact as “almost incomprehensible.”

Yet the fact remains that so far, the Benedict of Turkey has not been the Benedict of Regensburg – shattering taboos and putting tough issues on the table.

In the wake of Regensburg, defenders of the pope argued that however regrettable his language may have been, or the reaction it triggered, it would be worth it if the episode cleared space for a real conversation about extremism in global Islam, and the contribution that the Christian tradition of rational reflection might be able to make. Some critics might wonder what the point of Regensburg actually was if Benedict, and his Turkish hosts, appear almost determined to act as if it never happened.

To date, Benedict’s gamble appears to be that in order to have the conversation with Muslims at which Regensburg hinted, he first has to convince them that he’s a friend. He has to persuade Muslims that he intends to launch a reform, not a crusade.

In that sense, it’s possible that the fruits of the Turkey visit may only come into view, if at all, long after the pope has returned to Rome.

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