Dossier: The pope’s visit to Turkey (2006)

Source: FSSPX News


Ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and diplomacy

On November 26, shortly before the visit of Benedict XVI to Turkey, Mgr. Dominique Mamberti, the new Secretary of the Holy See for Relations with States, declared to the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire that the visit would have an ecumenical, interreligious and diplomatic scope. It would be ecumenical with regard to the Orthodox, interreligious with the Muslim and diplomatic towards a country that wishes to enter the European Union.

Among the various objectives of the pope’s visit from November 28 to December 1, we “ought not to introduce undue divisions,” explained the Holy See’s “minister for Foreign Affairs”. Thus he recalled that “the pope intends first of all to answer the invitation of the Patriarch Bartholomew I, and pay a fraternal visit to a Sister Church and promote ecumenical relationships even more.” The pope also wishes to “confirm in the faith” the small Catholic community by “telling it about the solidarity of the universal Church and encourage it in its difficulty.”

Concerning the respect of religious liberty, Mgr. Mamberti “imagines” that the pope will tackle the issue, “taking as his starting point the fact that to all citizens the Turkish Constitution guarantees religious liberty and ensures its existence, wishing that this may be achieved according to the demands proper to each religious community, even those in minority.” He also acknowledged that Benedict XVI’s address in Regensburg last September, and the polemics which ensued in the Muslim world, had “an influence on the pope’s visit, but rather a positive one in so far as it renders this visit even more significant.” Thus, during his visit, the pope “will be able to recall what he has already said and to clarify his thought about his esteem for the Muslims, his wish for dialogue, the possibility of collaboration in the service of man and of his cause, going beyond the misconstructions and misunderstandings.”

Concerning the issue of the adhesion of Turkey to the European Union, whose criteria include respect for religious liberty, Mgr. Mamberti recalled that the Holy See did not express any “official” position. But for all that, “the Holy See stresses that, in case of adhesion, the country must answer all the political criteria agreed upon at the Copenhagen summit in December 2002 and, as far as religious freedom is concerned, the recommendations contained in the decisions concerning the principles, priorities and conditions contained in the partnership of adhesion of Turkey on January 23, 2006.”

Lastly, the “minister for Foreign Affairs” of the Vatican emphasized that for the Turkish authorities, and as a rule “for the political officials of any country,” a meeting with the pope “always constitutes a precious opportunity – which should be made the most of – of exchange and collaboration for the benefit of the country concerned.” The Turkish Prime Minister who, at first, had announced that he would not be able to meet the pope, made known on November 24 that he would probably speak with him upon his arrival at Ankara airport.


The objectives of his visit in Turkey, according to Benedict XVI

On November 28, on board the plane flying him to Ankara, Benedict XVI specified the objectives of his visit to Turkey when answering the questions of the journalists accompanying him.


-        In what frame of mind do you undertake this most delicate journey of your pontificate?

-        I undertake it with much confidence and hope, and I know that many persons accompany us with their sympathy and prayers. I know that the Turkish people is hospitable, open and desires peace, and that Turkey always was a bridge between various cultures and thus a meeting point and a place of dialogue. I would like to stress that this is not a political but a pastoral visit. A pastoral visit whose definition is a determination for dialogue and common commitment in favor of peace. A dialogue in its various dimensions between cultures, between Christianity and Islam, with our Christian brethren and especially the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, and generally speaking for a better understanding between all of us. Naturally, we must not exaggerate, and we cannot expect great results from these three days. The value, I would say, is symbolic. The value is that of the meetings as such, meetings taking place in an atmosphere of friendship and respect. The fact of meeting as servants of peace carries weight and this seems to me to be the symbol of the commitment for peace and brotherhood. Such should be the real result of this visit.

-        How can Europe help Turkey, which wishes to enter the European Union?

-        I think we must remember that the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, took the French constitution as the model for the reconstruction of Turkey. At the source of modern Turkey you have then dialogue with European reason and with its way of life, in order to achieve it in a new manner in a different historico-religious context. So dialogue between European reason and Turkish Muslim tradition is really inscribed in the very existence of modern Turkey. In this sense, we have a reciprocal responsibility towards each other. In Europe, we have a discussion between sound laicism and secularism; and this seems to me particularly important for a true dialogue with Turkey. In secularism, there is an idea which completely separates public life from all the values of traditions, and it is a dead end. We must redefine the meaning of a laicism which underlines and maintains the true difference and autonomy of the spheres but also their coherence and common responsibility. Laicism can only live with values which basically have religion as their origin. Taking its history and origins as a starting point, Turkey must think together with us about the manner of rebuilding for the future this link between laicism and tradition, between a reason which is open-minded and tolerant and has as its fundamental element liberty and the values which give its content to liberty.

-        On the long ecumenical road with its many meetings, what is the meaning of your meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I?

-        Figures and quantity do not matter. What matters is the symbolic historical and spiritual weight. We know that Constantinople is like the “second Rome.” It has been a point of reference for Orthodoxy which gave us the great Orthodox Byzantine culture, and it still remains a point of reference for the Orthodox world and also for all of Christianity. The patriarchate of Constantinople, which still exists today, has a symbolic value even if it does not have jurisdiction as the pope does. It is nevertheless a guiding point for the entire Orthodox world.

So it is a matter of a meeting with the Church of the Apostle Andrew, the brother of Saint Peter, a meeting of high quality between the Sister-Churches of Rome and Constantinople, and consequently a very important moment in the search for Christian unity. There are other Christian communities, and even if they are small, they are present. I will, of course, also meet the small Catholic community. It is like the event of a communion beyond the geographical and cultural spheres. In this sense, the symbol is not merely something in the abstract, but something rich with reality. (…)


Vatican diplomacy and the entry of Turkey into the European Union

Upon leaving his plane, Benedict XVI met the Turkish Prime Minister who was waiting for him at Ankara airport. Followed by the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope went to the private rooms of the airport for a brief conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The pope spoke Italian, while the Prime Minister used Turkish. Benedict XVI explained that he was coming to Turkey to increase the friendship between the Holy See and the Turkish people and to foster meetings between various cultures. He also stressed that work in favor of peace was “our duty.” “You are an important country, a bridge and a synthesis between Western democracy and Islamic culture, you can help the pope, if you wish, in his work (for the rapprochement) between cultures and in favor of peace.”

On his part, the Prime Minister said he was pleased to be able to welcome the pope and the delegation from the Holy See. He noted that this visit was taken place at a privileged time. “I find that it has even a greater meaning at this time because it is at this period that the meeting takes place of the Alliance of Civilizations which we had announced, as you know, in the Istanbul declaration with the UN secretary Kofi Annan and the Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero,” he said.

The meeting lasted longer than expected; and Recept Tayyip Erdogan manifested his satisfaction to the media, stating that Benedict XVI had told him: “We do not meddle in politics, but we want Turkey to enter the European Union.”

In the golden book of the Mustapha Kemal (1881-1938) Mausoleum, the founder of today’s Turkey, the pope wrote: “On this land, meeting point and crossroads of various cultures, junction point of Asia and Europe, I willingly make my own the words of the founder of the Turkish Republic to express this wish: peace in our homeland, peace in the world!”

After the conversation between the Holy Father and the Turkish Prime Minister, Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman was anxious to clarify the pope’s thought when talking to Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the entrance of Turkey into the European Union. “The Holy See has neither the power nor the political duty of intervening on the specific issue of the entrance of Turkey into the European Union. Such is not its role. However, the Holy See looks positively upon the road of dialogue, rapprochement and integration into Europe, on the basis of common values and principles, and encourages it.” “In this sense,” concluded the director of the Holy See Press Bureau, “the pope expressed his appreciation concerning the initiative of the Alliance of Civilizations promoted by Prime Minister Erdogan.”

The press did not fail to observe that after the declarations of 2004 against the entrance of Turkey in Europe, by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and after the neutrality long displayed by Vatican diplomacy, the Holy See had seemed to shift its position. And they recalled the declaration of Mgr. Mamberti to Avvenire in its November 26 issue, in which the Vatican “minister for Foreign Affairs” stated that if Rome had no official position regarding the adhesion to Turkey to the European Union, in any case any candidate for adhesion had, according to the Holy See, to comply with the criteria of Copenhagen (December 2002), and for where religious liberty is concerned, fulfill the conditions contained in the partnership of adhesion of Turkey (January 23, 2006).


In the evening of November 28, the pope addressed the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Republic of Turkey. Before 90 diplomats, Benedict XVI declared that “Turkey had always served as a bridge between the East and the West, between Asia and Europe, and as a crossroads between cultures and religions,” and had chosen to make “a clear distinction between civil society and religion, each having to be autonomous in its own field while respecting the other’s sphere.” “The fact that the majority of the population is Muslim is a significant element in the life of society which the State cannot fail to take into account, but the Turkish Constitution recognize the right to freedom of worship and liberty of conscience for all citizens,” he emphasized.

The pope then stated that “the civil authorities of any democratic country are duty bound to guarantee the effective liberty of all believers and to allow them to organize freely the life of their religious communities.” He also hoped that “believers, whatever religious community they belong to, will continue to benefit from these rights,” and he said he was sure that “the active presence of religions in society is a source of progress and enrichment for all.” “This presupposes, of course, that religions do not seek to exercise direct political power, as that is not their province, and also that they absolutely refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion,” he warned.

Benedict XVI took advantage of this meeting to “reiterate (his) great esteem for Muslims, encouraging them to continue to work together, in mutual respect, to promote the dignity of every human being and the growth of a society where personal freedom and care for others provide peace and serenity for all.” He added that: “In this way, religions will be able to play their part in responding to the numerous challenges currently facing our societies.”


Ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox

In Istanbul, on November 30, Benedict XVI attended an Orthodox ceremony celebrated by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. On this occasion, the pope recalled the mission common to all Christians, and inscribed in the Gospel: “to make disciples of all nations.” He noted that “this charge left by the holy brothers Peter and Andrew was far from finished.” On the contrary, he explained, “it is even more urgent and necessary,” and concerns “not only those cultures which have been touched only marginally by the Gospel message, but also long-established European cultures deeply grounded in the Christian tradition.” “In the face of this reality,” affirmed Benedict XVI, “we are called, together with all other Christian communities, to renew Europe’s awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality.” – It is in a country seeking entry into the European Union, and Muslim by a large majority, that the pope spoke these words. Words which followed his statement before the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, on November 28, that the Holy See “looks positively upon, and encourages the road of dialogue, rapprochement and integration” of Turkey into Europe.

Once again, during his visit, from the patriarchate of Constantinople the pope made an appeal for the respect of religious liberty, in a country which numbers only 100,000 Christians, most of them Orthodox. “We insistently ask all the world leaders to respect religious liberty as a basic human right,” he said in his address in English.

Before the Ecumenical Patriarch, Benedict XVI also reaffirmed “the universal service of Peter and his Successors”, alluding to the primacy of the pope which “has unfortunately given rise to differences of opinion.” Differences which Benedict XVI hoped “to overcome, thanks to the theological dialogue which has been recently resumed” after a six-year interruption. He also declared that his presence was “intended to renew our commitment to advancing along the road towards the re-establishment – by God’s grace – of full communion between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople. I can assure you that the Catholic Church is willing to do everything possible to overcome obstacles and to seek, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, ever more effective means of pastoral cooperation to this end,” he insisted.

On his part, Bartholomew I judged the presence of the pope as a “manifestation” of his “fraternal love” for the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. He also remarked upon “their obvious common desire to persevere on the road (…) to re-establish full communion.” “We confess a deep affliction at not being yet able to be united to celebrate the holy sacraments,” regretted the patriarch.

The long Orthodox liturgy took place in the Patriarchal Church of Saint George in the Phanar, the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul. Benedict XVI attended the ceremony in the richly decorated Church, before the iconostasis. He was seated on a throne opposite the patriarch’s but placed slightly lower.

Then, in a common declaration, Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I called upon the European Union to be more attentive to the issue of religious liberty. Stating that they had “viewed positively the process that had led to the formation of the European Union,” they invited “those engaged in this great project” to “take into consideration all aspects affecting the inalienable rights of the human person, especially religious freedom, a witness and guarantor of respect for all other liberties.” They emphasized their responsibility, “while remaining open to other religions and to their cultural contributions” to “unite their efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values, to ensure respect for history and thus to contribute to the European culture of the future.”

Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I expressed their common wish for “a renewed and powerful proclamation of the Gospel,” while deploring “the increase of secularization, relativism, and indeed nihilism, especially in the Western world.”


The common declaration is also bent on denouncing the “difficulties” which Christians have to face, “particularly poverty, wars and terrorism, but equally various forms of exploitation of the poor, of migrants, women and children. Catholics and Orthodox are called to work together to promote respect for the rights of every human being,” specifies the declaration, recalling that to “kill innocent people in God’s name is an offense against him and against human dignity.”


Interreligious dialogue with Islam

Benedict XVI visited the Blue Mosque of Istanbul in the afternoon of November 30, 2006. With the mufti of the Turkish capital, he spent a long time recollected in silent prayer before expressing the wish that this visit may enable Christians and Muslims to find “the means and the ways of peace for the good of mankind.”

Upon his arrival in the courtyard of the mosque, he was welcomed by the mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici. The pope took off his shoes before entering, and put on fine white slippers. After having listened to the description of the place translated by an interpreter, the two men recollected themselves together in the direction of Mecca. The pope, upon his host’s invitation, meditated with eyes closed and hands folded over his stomach while the mufti recited a prayer. Then, the Muslim official offered a representation of a dove with an olive branch, symbol of peace to the pope. In his turn, Benedict XVI gave the mufti a painting and a mosaic also representing several doves drinking from a cup. This the mufti considered as a “divine coincidence.” “This painting is a message of brotherhood and a memorial of a visit I will certainly not forget,” declared the pope to his host. “This visit,” he added, “will help us to find together the means and ways of peace for the good of mankind.”

In the evening of November 30, the director of the Vatican Press Bureau, Fr. Lombardi, provided the journalists with the following comment: “In the most famous of Istanbul mosques, standing next to the mufti of the city, the pope took “a moment of reflection and silent and personal meditation with God.” The words of the Jesuit aimed at specifying that Benedict XVI did not pray “with” the mufti”, but rather “next to him,” – according to the distinction established to justify the interreligious Assisi meeting in which the participants did not pray together, but were together to pray!

On his part, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, emeritus president of the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace and Cor Unum, called the pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque “an important moment.” To some journalists he said in the morning of December 1st: “I would compare this gesture to that of John Paul II at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in the year 2000.” They are both “very symbolic and very important moments.” “Both times, we were not expecting it,” he continued. Benedict XVI “did with regard to the Muslims what John Paul II had done for the Jews.” – During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, John Paul II had placed a message between the stones of the wall of the ancient temple of Jerusalem, prayed and made a sign of blessing.

“The prayer” of Benedict XVI in the Blue Mosque “is even more significant that an apology” for his words associating Islam with violence, stated the mufti of Istanbul, quoted by the Turkish daily Sabah on December 1st. He also gave to understand that the pope’s gesture was premeditated, explaining to the news channel NTV that he had talked about an invitation extended to the pope together with the Turkish officials responsible for the protocol, who had in turn consulted with the Vatican authorities. “It was something very beautiful, a nice gesture on his part. With his posture, he gave a message to the Muslims,” declared mufti Mustafa Cagrici to Sabah. “It was an attitude even more significant than an apology” less than three months after the violent polemics started by his words about Islam, he declared about the visit which made front-page news in the Turkish press.

After having explained how Muslims recollect themselves before the mihrab (prayer niche), the mufti began to pray. With hands folded over his stomach, the head of the Catholic Church then recollected himself during a few minutes in silence. “He evidenced great courtesy by not making the sign of the Cross at the end of his prayer and by folding his hands over his stomach, as Muslims do during their prayer. I thank our guest,” said the mufti to NTV.

The Muslim officials questioned by the Turkish press, saw in the pope’s gesture a desire to “make up” for his declarations of September in Regensburg, which were considered as offensive to the Muslims. “The fact that he prayed, even if it is not an apology, shows that he regrets,” esteemed Beyza Bilgin of the Faculty of Theology in Ankara. “He well understood that he had offended the Muslims. He tried to make up”, she said. “He knew what he was doing. The pope is first of all an intellectual, and he knows the Muslim ritual,” affirmed Saim Yeprem from the Faculty of Theology of Marmara (Istanbul).

This visit made of Benedict XVI the second pope in history to enter a Muslim place of worship, after John Paul II who went to the mosque of the Omeyyades in Damas on the occasion of his visit to Syria in 2001.

As he does each time he comes back from a journey, the pope, during the public audience of December 6, commented upon the different stages of his visit to Turkey: “Within the framework of interreligious dialogue, divine Providence gave me to make, almost at the end of my visit, a gesture not scheduled originally and which proved to be rather significant: the visit to the famous Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Observing a few minutes of recollection in this place of prayer, I turned towards the One Lord of heaven and earth, the merciful Father of all mankind. May all believers recognize themselves in the Creator and give testimony of true brotherhood”, declared the pope.

“The pope is a good theologian. He knows what he is doing,” declared Hans Kung, former university colleague of Joseph Ratzinger in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica. Hans Kung thinks that the gesture of the pope “is a new development of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.” The Swiss progressivist theologian recalled that, according to the conciliar declaration Nostra Ætate, on interreligious dialogue, “the Church considers with esteem the Muslims who adore the One God (…) creator of heaven and earth.”

What the pope did “was a moment of recollection, a meditation, and this is something we may do,” observed the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, thus avoiding to assimilate the gesture to a prayer.


Our comment: Concerning the allegedly common faith of Christian and Muslims in one God, we must bear in mind that the Catholic faith profess that God is one and triune, whereas Muslims affirm their monotheism only in order to negate the Trinity. As Louis Jugnet already observed in his Note on the Possession of Truth: “Judaism and Islam always insist on the unity of God – which is a truth -, but they do it purposely and in a unilateral manner which excludes the Christian dogma of the Trinity.”

The practical consequence of such a religious dialogue can only be indifferentism, or even syncretism, as René Rémond acknowledges. Speaking of the idea “deeply rooted in contemporary mentalities that no religion possesses alone the totality of truth,” this militant progressivist Christian does not hesitate to say: “the Church herself contributes to this in the measure in which, especially since the last council, it shows respect towards other beliefs. Non-Christian traditions are no longer assimilated to error. Consequently, the classical schema which so long preserved the cohesion of the Catholic people has been shattered: the clear-cut and absolute opposition between truth and error.” And he draws the logical conclusion: “Common opinion is not very far from the idea that the various religious traditions are all of the same worth. Why then should we not seek elsewhere what is lacking in us, through a kind of spiritual journey or tourism? This could lead to some sort of syncretism…” (Christianity under accusation)