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Papal Visit Boosts Beleaguered Catholics

December 7 (Compass Direct News) – In a year that saw eight violent attacks on Christians in Turkey and widespread uproar over a papal speech deemed derogatory to Islam, many Turkish Catholics worried that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to their homeland last week could only go badly.

But the four-day whirlwind trip to Ankara, Ephesus and Istanbul appears to have lifted the Christian community’s spirits and possibly their place in society.

“To tell you the truth, before [the visit] there was some anxiety,” said Istanbul Bishop Louis Pelatre, whose diocese hosted the Roman pontiff for two days. “But it was far more positive than we had even hoped.”

While local Catholics broke into spontaneous dancing in the courtyard of Istanbul’s Holy Spirit Cathedral following the pope’s final mass in Turkey on December 1, church leaders came away with new hope for their community to achieve legal status.

Following the pope’s visit, Turkish authorities agreed to participate with the country’s Catholic community in a joint commission to discuss the church’s legal identity, Vatican Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone told Italian TV station RAI.

According to a December 1 Adventist Press article, the commission will focus on issues of residence and work permits for clergy and church property rights, ongoing sore points for the tiny community that, including expatriates, numbers fewer than 20,000.

“Our biggest problem is that we do not have legal identity,” said Bishop Pelatre. “We have freedom of worship, but not religious freedom – that’s something else.”

Pelatre, a resident of Turkey for 36 years, expressed cautious optimism over the reported progress, saying he has not yet had contact with the Turkish government about the proposal on the church’s legal status.

“This is not a new idea,” said the Istanbul bishop. “Last year we went to the Prime Minister’s office with [this same] idea and they accepted it. But a year-and-a-half has passed and nothing has materialized.”

Fears of Violence

Few expected the pope’s visit to solve his flock’s lack of legal status in Turkey, where a militant brand of secularism cripples religious freedom for both Christians and majority Muslims.

Many in Turkey were more concerned about a potentially violent backlash over the pope’s use of a medieval quote linking Islam with violence in his September speech at the University of Regensburg.

Two days before the pontiff’s arrival, the right-wing Islamic Saadet Party staged a demonstration, 20,000 strong, to protest the Catholic leader’s visit. Two weeks prior, a protestor had been jailed for firing a gun in front of the Italian embassy and threatening to kill the pope.

“I was very worried by all the negative news,” said Antuan Ilgit, a Turkish Jesuit seminarian studying in Rome who traveled to Turkey for the pontiff’s visit.

“Nobody wanted me to participate in the papal mass, because they thought there would be a bomb,” Turkish Catholic Teresa Tuzun told Compass in the courtyard outside the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Istanbul.

Joining a spontaneous Turkish folk dance in celebration of the pope’s coming, Tuzun said she had thrown caution to the wind. “I told them, ‘If you hear a bomb, know that I exploded with the pope.’”

Recurring anti-Christian media coverage and social discrimination against converts to Christianity from Islam had compounded fears among Turkey’s Catholics that the pope’s trip could end poorly.

“Unfortunately, people aren’t able to accept the fact that we are both Turkish and Catholic,” said one convert from Islam who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. “They treat us as if we are traitors to our country. But we are Turks and we will stand by our state and our people until the end.”

Winning Over Critics

Negative feelings have often turned violent, prompting four attacks on Catholic priests in the past year. After Father Andrea Santoro was shot to death in the Black Sea city of Trabzon last February, national newspapers speculated that the killing was motivated by the clergyman’s work with prostitutes or by paying children money to attend mass.

But Benedict’s unexpectedly positive encounter may significantly aid Turkish Catholics and other Christian minorities in overcoming their social stigma.

Balanced with conciliatory gestures towards Islam and Turkey, overwhelming security measures and repeated calls for religious minority rights, the Roman pontiff’s stay won over not a few critics and endeared him to his flock.

The former whipping boy for Turkish Islamophobia watchdogs soon earned admiration, reportedly telling Prime Minister Recep Erdogan that Turkey belonged in the European Union. He even carried a Turkish flag after celebrating mass in Ephesus, and yesterday approved the picture’s use by the Turkish tourism industry.

But it was a moment of silent prayer in the Blue Mosque, the pope shoulder to shoulder with Istanbul’s Muslim religious head on November 30, which topped all other gestures.

“It created a very positive response among the Muslims,” Bishop Pelatre commented. The event headlined almost every Turkish newspaper the following day. Only the second pope in history to visit a mosque, Benedict’s prayer in a Muslim place of worship countered nationalist fears that he would pray in the famed Hagia Sophia, a venerable cathedral-turned-mosque and now a museum, in an attempt to turn it back into a church.

Pelatre refused to speculate on whether the pope’s visit would improve Catholics’ overall situation in Turkey. “We hope so, but we must wait and see.”

Others were more optimistic. “The pope showed courage coming to Turkey to support the Christian congregations, congregations that we know face difficulties,” Jesuit seminarian Ilgit commented. “I believe this trip changed Turks’ prejudices.”