Pope turns other cheek to Muslim Turkey
Richard Owen, Ankara
THE Pope has reversed his opposition to Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, appearing to back the overwhelmingly Muslim country’s hard-fought push towards membership at the start of his visit.
Benedict XVI appealed for Christian-Muslim reconciliation and called on all religious leaders to “utterly refuse to support any form of violence in the name of faith”. His controversial and potentially hazardous visit – originally intended to improve relations between Catholics and Orthodox Christians – was “pastoral, not political”, he insisted late on Tuesday. But there were immediate tensions after the country’s top Muslim official accused him of stirring up Islamophobia.
The build-up to the Pope’s four-day visit has been marked by setbacks in Turkey’s bid for EU membership – which the Pope as a cardinal once called a “grave error” – and anger in the Muslim world over the Pope’s contentious remarks about Islam in a university address two months ago.
But Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan put resentments aside on Tuesday by agreeing to greet the Pope at Ankara airport and hold talks there.
Following the meeting, he was quick to claim the Pope had expressed hope that Turkey would join the EU.
A papal spokesman later clarified the remarks, saying the Pope had told the Turkish leader the Vatican did not have the power to intervene, but “viewed positively and encouraged” the process of Turkey’s entry into the EU “on the basis of common values and principles”.
In a break with protocol, Mr Erdogan greeted the Pope, 79, at the steps of his plane, a mark of respect from a leader who had initially said he was too busy to meet the pontiff.
The Pope in turn appeared to nod understandingly when Mr Erdogan explained he had to attend the NATO summit in Riga. Mr Erdogan said: “The most important message the Pope gave was toward Islam, reiterating his view of Islam as peaceful and affectionate.”
The Pope’s visit is sensitive – a closely watched pilgrimage full of symbolism that could offer hope of religious reconciliation or deepen what many say is the growing divide between the Christian and Islamic worlds.
He clearly made reconciliation a priority on his first day.
Among a series of taxing meetings was a dialogue with Ali Bardakoglu, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate and Turkey’s top Muslim official.
Dr Bardakoglu accused the Pope of encouraging Islamophobia with his remarks at Regensburg University two months ago, when the Pope quoted a medieval Christian emperor who had linked Islam to violence and inhumanity.
He lectured an uncomfortable-looking Pope, telling him: “When religious leaders come together, they should concentrate on solving the common problems of mankind without trying to demonstrate the superiority of their own beliefs.”
Islamophobia was regrettable and based on prejudice, rather than any “scientific or historical research or data”, he said.
“We are members of a religion which assumes that killing an innocent person is a heavy crime and a sin.”
Sitting on the stage next to Dr Bardakoglu, the Pope did not react to the statement. But he did retract comments he made in 2004, opposing Turkish membership of the EU, saying he now favoured the move.
The Pope praised “the flowering of Islamic civilisation” in Turkey and said Christians and Muslims both valued the sacred and “the dignity of the person”.
“This is the basis of our mutual respect and esteem,” he said. “We are called to work together via authentic dialogue.”
The Pope later told diplomats that leaders of all religions must “utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of faith”.
Those comments could be reinforced later this week when the Pope meets in Istanbul with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians