VATICAN CITY — It has been an eventful nine months for Cardinal Paul Poupard.

In March, Pope Benedict XVI named the French cardinal president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Since then the cardinal, who is also the president of the Pontifical Council of Culture, has been a key Vatican player in dealing with the hostile Muslim reaction to the Pope’s Regensburg speech.

Cardinal Poupard spoke Dec. 2 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about Benedict’s recent trip to Turkey and its significance to Catholic-Muslim relations.

What in your opinion were the highlights and main achievements of the Pope’s pilgrimage to Turkey?

The apostolic voyage of the Holy Father to Turkey had three aims: reinforce ecumenical dialogue, give a boost to interreligious dialogue, and comfort the small Catholic community.

These three objectives were amply achieved, beyond all our hopes and expectations. Even the famous secular Turkish press gave the headline on the day of Pope Benedict XVI’s departure:

“He came as Pope

He returns as Father.”

The Turkish press coverage of the visit was outstanding and gave a rare chance to millions of Turks to follow closely through live broadcasts the different stages of the voyage and so come to know the face, words and gestures of that good man who is so full of love for all men and women.

His love came through to all: in the important meetings with the civil authorities, the Muslim leaders, Orthodox brothers of different confessions and the Catholic Church in Turkey.

To what extent did the visit herald a new era in Catholic-Muslim relations?

After the media-orchestrated misunderstanding of Regensburg, the visit of the Pope opened a new era of Catholic-Muslim relations.

First of all, there was the previously unheard of fact that the Pope would dare to visit the Presidency for Religious Affairs. There he cordially explained to its president why he had entrusted to me both the presidency of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the presidency of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. It was a decision taken not with a view to weakening such dialogue, but on the contrary, of reinforcing it.

Then there was the most emblematic moment of the voyage: the Pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque, with that long moment of reflection alongside the grand mufti of Istanbul, facing Mihrab, the niche toward which the Muslim faithful pray in the direction of Mecca.

These two men of faith, vested in white, and who had notably exchanged gifts — a blue ceramic tile with a dove and the words “God Almighty and Merciful” from the mufti and a mosaic of a white dove from the Pope — in a stupendous sign of concord. This was made more explicit in the words written by Benedict XVI in the golden book of Hagia Sofia: “In our diversity, we stand together in faith in the One God. May God enlighten us and lead us to the way of love and peace!”

Some critics have suggested that during the visit, the Holy Father compromised the stronger line he seemed to take with regard to Muslims during his Regensburg speech. What do you say in response to the criticism?

Let us not exaggerate the value of these inevitable criticisms. The Pope’s line is very clear for anyone who wishes to understand it. As he said on taking his leave of Istanbul, “I give thanks to God for having been able to help ecumenical and interreligious dialogue with my visit to Turkey the bridge between Asia and Europe.”

Pope Benedict XVI, by his words and gestures, treads the path of dialogue, as he has often repeated, not as an optional path, but as a necessary path for the Church. It is a real dialogue, profound, sincere and demanding, and at the same time a dialogue of faith and reason; in love, in truth and in charity. 

How hopeful are you that the Holy Father’s appeals for greater religious freedom in Muslim-majority nations will be heeded?

There is great hope and expectation. As regards Turkey, a first result has already come during the colloquium with the vice prime minister at which I was a participant: the concrete proposal to establish a “joint commission” of the Turkish government and the Turkish Catholic bishops’ conference to examine together the local problems that do exist and that are in need of appropriate solutions.

Do you think the success of this pilgrimage opens the way for another one to the Holy Land sometime in the near future?

Without a shadow of a doubt the success of this pilgrimage is a key stage on that difficult path. We all know that the Holy See works tirelessly for a peaceful solution to the dramatic situation in the Holy Land, calling on every side to seek the way of reasonable accord, meeting the legitimate needs of all those involved under the guarantee of the United Nations.

How would you like to see Catholic-Muslim dialogue develop in the future, following this visit?

In the future, following this visit, the most important thing is that Catholic-Muslim dialogue can develop in a climate of trust and reciprocal respect, with a deeper awareness of the faith of Christians and Muslims, their sources — the Bible and the Quran — and their respective traditions. Already a good positive sign is the publication of a single volume of the Bible and of the Quran in the original languages.

Then, with the joyful rediscovery of our sharing faith in the One God, the God of Abraham, shall we together restore God to the heart of cultures, through a lively and efficacious witness in a common commitment to that peace desired by all people of good will, a peace which is implored as a gift of God.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.