Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
Select Page

Pope will meet sharp criticism during visit to Turkey
Scott Rank and Stacy Meichtry

(For the full story, go to Columbus Dispatch) ISTANBUL, Turkey — In the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Spirit here, a bronze statue stands in honor of a Roman Catholic pontiff named Benedict: “The benefactor of all people, irrespective of nationality or religion,” a nearby placard reads.

Apart from the name, the statue bears no resemblance to Pope Benedict XVI, who enraged devout Muslims around the world with his remarks on Islam during a September speech in Germany. The statue was erected, rather, as a tribute to Pope Benedict XV, a renowned peacemaker who failed to stop World War I.

Like his predecessor, however, Benedict finds himself at the center of a potentially epochal clash — an ideological struggle that pits East against West, Muslim against Christian. Starting Tuesday, the pope will make his first trip outside Europe, to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation that maintains increasingly fragile relations with the Roman Catholic leader.

Turkish leaders were among the first to decry Benedict’s controversial speech, in which he quoted a Christian medieval ruler describing the teachings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman” and “spread by the sword.” One of the first stops on Benedict’s Turkish tour will be the country’s Ministry of Religious Affairs to clarify his views on Islam.

More recently, Benedict has made clear that he intends to push for “sincere and frank” relations with Muslim leaders.

At the center of Benedict’s policy, church officials say, lies a desire to see the rights guaranteed to Muslims living in the West extended to Christians living in the Muslim world. Even in Turkey, an officially secular country, strains of religious discrimination are present.

“We are forced to face this issue in a more substantial and forceful way,” said Bishop Luigi Padovese, the church’s top prelate in Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor. “It’s a question of survival.” In February, one of Padovese’s priests was gunned down while praying in a parish in Trabzon, a city on the coast of the Black Sea.

Although Benedict is under pressure to make overtures to Turkey’s Muslims, relations with Islam are not the primary focus of his visit. Officially, he is meeting Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, or modernday Istanbul. Bartholomew, whose church predates the founding of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, is the source of intense public scrutiny in Turkey.

He is regularly accused in the media of trying to establish an Eastern Orthodox enclave in Turkey modeled after Vatican City. Benedict’s main objective will be to lend support to the country’s Christian minorities, including non-Catholics, Padovese said.

The visit also could embolden scores of Turkish Christians to profess their faith more openly. “This is a good chance for us because we can explain our theology,” says Firat Tuncel, a 26-year-old airline worker who converted to Catholicism from Islam.

Tuncel, who converted after studying in Germany three years ago, admits he has not officially declared the change to authorities. His national identification card says he is a Muslim.

“There is strong psychological pressure,” he says. “You can be unemployed for years and be treated as a second-class citizen in society, simply because your official ID has ‘Christian’ written on it.”

While Benedict has kicked off past foreign trips by parading through town in the popemobile and pressing flesh with the faithful at outdoor Masses, he will keep a lower public profile in Turkey. The visit is expected to use security measures that rival those put in place when President Bush visited Turkey for a NATO summit in 2004.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, recently warned Benedict not to make the trip. Agca, who is in prison, told the pope in a statement conveyed to the Associated Press, “As a man who knows these things, I am saying that your life is in danger, don’t come to Turkey.”