VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to Turkey is both a diplomatic minefield and a sea of valuable opportunities.

Analysts say the trip is of major importance for three reasons: for furthering religious freedom in Turkey and other Muslim-majority states, for improving Muslim-Christian relations, and for advancing the cause of Christian unity.

As the Register went to press, the details of the apostolic voyage had yet to be finalized. But according to Asia News and Vatican sources, the Pope is scheduled to arrive in the Turkish capital of Ankara Nov. 28, where he will spend the day with the country’s political authorities.

The following day, the Holy Father will travel to the port city of Izmir near Ephesus where he will visit an ancient Christian community, before moving on to Ephesus itself where he is expected to visit Meryem Ana, a small house on a hilltop overlooking the Aegean Sea where, according to tradition, Mary lived out her final years and was assumed into heaven.

On Nov. 29, Benedict is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul, where he will have a private audience with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, the person who first invited the Pope to Turkey.

On Nov. 30, on the feast of St. Andrew, the Pope will attend a solemn Divine Liturgy presided over by the patriarch. The Holy Father is expected to deliver a discourse on the quest for Christian unity and comment on this year’s resumption of the Commission of Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Before returning to Rome Dec. 1, the Pope will also meet with Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II, who leads a Christian community that has suffered intermittent persecution for centuries.


Religious Freedom

Turkish Christians still face discrimination, despite residing in the country for 2,000 years (the Orthodox have few rights over their property and are subject to special legal restrictions).

And while Turkey is ostensibly a secular state, in recent years it has experienced a strong trend towards Islamism. The numbers of attacks on Christians have risen, the most notorious being the murder of Italian priest Father Andrea Santoro earlier this year.

“We have to hope that the Pope’s visit — to an ecumenical patriarchate that is for all practical purposes controlled by the Turkish government — advances the cause of religious freedom in Turkey and throughout the Islamic world,” papal biographer George Weigel told the Register.

“No one should gainsay the difficulty of that project, however,” Weigel said. “Not because of the Pope’s Regensburg lecture, which, in fact, identified the crucial issues with precision, but because of the current jihadist drift of too much Islamic thought and sentiment.”

A number of senior Vatican officials hope Benedict will be able to reach out to Muslims during the trip by conveying the true message of his Regensburg speech, which sparked intense anger in Turkey and other Muslim countries.

Some observers recommended caution in addressing that issue.

“If he refers directly to it, I don’t think it will help because Muslims are not ready to understand it,” said Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, professor of Oriental theology at St. Joseph’s University in Lebanon.

But others insisted that the focus of the Pope’s Regensburg address — the need to reconcile faith and reason — is crucial to furthering Muslim-Christian dialogue and to helping Muslims renounce violent extremism.

“Why do we have to wait to discuss this?” asked Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, rector emeritus of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. “For years, we have not confronted these issues; we have to begin somewhere.”

EU Membership

Another touchy issue is Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, which is linked to the issues of religious freedom and Muslim-Christian relations. The matter is made more sensitive by Benedict’s statement in 2004 that he was opposed to Turkey joining the economic bloc.

A Turkish government spokesman told the Register Oct. 20 that the Pope will probably have to “clarify” his position on the matter.

The meeting with Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II might also generate friction. Some Italian commentators have argued that by meeting the patriarch, the Pope will bear witness to allegations that Turkey killed 1.5 million Armenians in a planned act of genocide in 1915. The Turkish government strongly denies those charges.

Vatican officials, however, are playing down any such interpretation of the meeting.

Benedict’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I is likely to be much less controversial, but potentially far more significant.

The patriarch told reporters Sept. 29 he was anticipating the visit with “great brotherly love.” That fraternal affection could be decisive in reaching a constructive outcome now that formal Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has resumed, and discussions have begun on the key issue of papal primacy.


Some Vatican analysts have expressed concern about the Pope’s security in the wake of the Regensburg controversy. The Turkish government spokesman stressed that Benedict will be welcomed as a “foreign leader of a state” rather than a “religious leader,” in order to “give more importance” to the visit and ensure he is “protected as a head of state.”

The Turkish government has also moved to ease the security concerns by noting that the country has hosted many world leaders without problems, including President Bush in 2004.

The government spokesman said that Turks view the papal visit as an opportunity for reconciliation, not confrontation.

“There is no opposition to his visit, but we have been heartbroken and offended, recently after the Regensburg speech, but also [through] the cartoon crisis and the war in Iraq and Lebanon,” the government spokesman said. “The hope is that he will bring healing, and there are strong indications of that.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.