In Turkey, fears of an anti-pope backlash


Reaction to a papal trip is usually measured by the crowds which welcome the pope, not by the number in opposition. In rare cases, however, a cocktail of political and historical resentments generates significant protest. Such was the case when Sandinista provocateurs tried to shout down the pope in Nicaragua in 1983, for example, or when Orthodox hardliners performed public exorcisms to ward off his influence in Greece in May 2001.

It remains to be seen whether Turkey will be such a case, though the ingredients are certainly there.

Even before Sept. 12, Joseph Ratzinger was already an unpopular figure in Turkey in light of his opposition to the country’s candidacy for membership in the European Union. At the University of Regensburg, however, Pope Benedict XVI became an icon of Western hostility for many Muslims when he cited the 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Despite its reputation as a bastion of Islamic moderation, Turkish reaction to the Regensburg speech was among the most ferocious in the Muslim world. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, the former mayor of Istanbul and head of the country’s leading Islamic party, was perhaps the most caustic head of government in any majority Muslim state.

“I believe it is a must for the Pope to retract his erroneous, ugly and unfortunate remarks and apologise both to the Islamic world and Muslims,” Erdogan said at the time in a televised address to the nation.

“The pope spoke not like a man of religion but like a usual politician,” said Erdogan, who may or may not meet Benedict XVI on Tuesday at the Ankara airport.

Meanwhile, the country’s Director of Religious Affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, called the pope’s speech “extremely regrettable and worrying ... both for the Christian world and for the common peace of humanity.”

Given such reactions, it’s hardly a surprise that Islamic hardliners in Turkey have felt emboldened to oppose Benedict’s arrival.

Earlier this week, Turkish police broke up a group of about 50 demonstrators in Hagia Sophia, a storied Christian church built under Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and later converted into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century. The site was finally turned into a museum under the secularizing regime of Kemal Attatürk in the 20th century. The protestors, who were from the youth movement of a right-wing nationalist party, recited Muslim prayers and shouted, “God is great,” and said they had done so to express opposition to Benedict’s arrival.

Afterwards, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the new Vatican spokesperson, said that such “episodic and limited events … are not sufficient to call into question the substance and the climate of the visit, which we anticipate will unfold in a serene fashion.” Lombardi said that such events “do not create particular concerns, even if they don’t make us happy …. It’s no surprise, since we already knew that there are groups not especially favorable to the pope’s visit. But that shouldn’t be over-estimated.”

Bishop Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Administrator for Anatolia, blamed such expressions of opinion on political forces “which want to distance Turkey from Europe.”

On Nov. 2, a Turk named Ibrahim Ak fired a pistol outside the Italian consulate in Istanbul, and, just to be clear, shouted that he would like to strangle the pope with his bare hands.

“God willing, this will be a spark, a starter for Muslims ... God willing, he will not come. If he comes, he will see what will happen to him,” the 26-year-old Turk told the TV cameras as he was led away in handcuffs.

Anti-papal Turkish sentiments are no laughing matter, given Mehmet Ali Agca’s assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in 1978.

On Sunday, anti-papal demonstrators in Istanbul unfurled banners that proclaimed, “We don’t want the pope in Turkey,” as well as “The false and ignorant pope is not welcome.”

Islamic newspapers have generally interpreted Benedict’s planned meeting with Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, as heralding an anti-Islamic front uniting Eastern and Western Christianity. In fact, some Turkish commentators read Benedict’s decision to quote a Byzantine emperor at the University of Regensburg in the same key.

Several radical Islamic groups are active in Turkey, some with links to al-Qaida. A wave of suicide bombings against synagogues and British interests in Istanbul three years ago killed 58 people, and about 70 alleged al-Qaida operatives are on trial for the attacks.

Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has compared Benedict to Pope Urban II, who in a 1095 sermon at Clermont ordered the First Crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims.

A recent Turkish thriller, “Plot Against the Pope” by Yucel Kaya carries the subtitle “Who will kill the pope in Istanbul?”

Security experts said that while the pope’s physical safety can almost certainly be assured, it’s much more difficult to protect other Christian targets in the country – churches, Christian-owned businesses and private homes, which could be placed in harm’s way if there is significant negative reaction to the pope’s presence, or his message.

Ely Karmon, an anti-terrorism expert in Herzliya, Israel, said, “I don’t expect threats against the person of the pope. The real risk is actions on the part of Islamic extremists against churches, religious institutes or other significant sites. It would ruin the trip, striking the pope and replying to what these groups considered anti-Islamic declarations at Regensburg.”

Part of the problem in Turkey, experts note, is that Turkish nationalists tend to identify Christianity with the country’s most bitter rival in Greece, so that “Christians” and “Greeks” are virtually synonymous terms. Hence any concession to Christians is often understood as a blow to Turkey’s national interests, and conversely Christians are frequently convenient targets when national pride is threatened.

In 2003 and 2004, nationalist terrorist groups struck five targets in Istanbul: two synagogues, the English consulate and an English bank, and the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

The potential certainly exists, therefore, for a significant backlash against Benedict XVI this week. To what extent that potential is realized, however, remains to be seen.

John Allen’s e-mail address is

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