Pontiff strikes right tone
Just as the Bible speaks of converting swords into plowshares, Pope Benedict XVI has used his extraordinary pilgrimage to Turkey this week to transform outrage over provocative remarks he made about Islam into an emerging image of conciliation and outreach.
His efforts have been hailed by many here and could have crucial influence on the future of the troubled relations between Islam and Christianity.
During his four-day visit, which ended Friday, the pope faced Mecca and prayed shoulder to shoulder with an Islamic cleric in Turkey’s most important mosque. He shook the hand of one of his sternest Muslim critics. He even hoisted a Turkish flag bearing the Islamic symbol of a crescent moon.
By most accounts, Benedict was successful in winning over begrudging hearts and minds in the Islamic world.
It was, as one Italian commentator put it, the theological Benedict replaced by the diplomatic Benedict, an infrequently seen facet of this complex and deeply intellectual pope.
“People here were worried about the message he would give, what he would say about Islam and whether he would show respect,” said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer who specializes in interfaith issues and who considers himself a devout Muslim. “He did way better than expected. This was very fruitful for him.”
Turkish newspapers, some of which had harshly criticized the pope just days earlier, on Friday gave generally positive coverage to the pontiff’s visit to the majestic 17th century Blue Mosque. A photograph of him praying silently Thursday alongside the grand mufti of Istanbul dominated almost every front page.
“The whole world watched this historic moment,” the centrist Milliyet newspaper said. “Sympathetic pope ... continued to surprise the world,” declared the top-selling Hurriyet daily.
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who accompanied the pope and is a recognized expert in diplomacy, compared Benedict’s gesture at the mosque to the historic moment in 2000 when his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, stood and prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
At the stone wall that is among Judaism’s holiest sites, John Paul wrote a note seeking forgiveness for centuries of abuse of Jews by Catholics, in what became a seminal act signaling a new era in the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with its predecessor faith.
“These are two very important symbolic moments,” Etchegaray said Friday. “Benedict XVI did with the Muslims yesterday what John Paul II did with the Jews.”
It was a speech that Benedict gave in September that ended up setting the agenda for his first trip to a predominantly Muslim country. In that speech in Regensburg, Germany, Benedict linked Islam to violence and quoted a Byzantine emperor who saw only evil in the faith founded by the prophet Muhammad.
The remarks enraged the Muslim world and threatened to destroy bridges built during the 26-year papacy of John Paul.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, has maintained the hope that the silver lining of the uproar would be the opening of a frank and sincere dialogue between the largest Christian faith and Islam. As the Turkey trip ended, he said he believed that process had been launched.
“I think we have moved beyond Regensburg, and, in a way, Regensburg has borne positive fruit,” Lombardi said.
The pope, as he departed Istanbul for the flight home to Rome, told the regional governor who saw him off that he hoped his visit would bring the religions closer together.
“As a pastor of the Catholic Church, I think it is my duty to contribute to the understanding and dialogue among cultures and religions,” he said.
The praise for Benedict was by no means universal.
Nationalist Turks found fault, especially with his overtures to Turkey’s Christian minorities. He engaged in hours of prayer and celebration with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the titular head of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians. He saluted him as the “ecumenical patriarch,” a term loathed by Turks because it suggests authority elevated beyond the Turkish state.
Additional criticism came from the Christian side of the aisle, with some suggesting that, in his eagerness to appease the Muslims, the pope failed to adequately lobby on behalf of the beleaguered Christian community.
But if the Christians whom the pope came to support felt slighted, most did not indicate it.
Bartholomew, a sprightly man with a bushy white beard, expressed satisfaction with the pope’s visit. He combined a little Italian and English to say he was “happisimo” -- “very happy” with the pope’s presence.
“He brought the attention of the world on the problems we suffer,” said Anthony Limberakis, national commander of the Order of St. Andrew, one of numerous Greek-American delegations in Istanbul to support their religious brethren.
Benedict made a final gentle plea on behalf of Christians during the Mass he said Friday at the Catholic Holy Spirit Cathedral.
He noted that the Christian minorities in Turkey “walk the humble path of daily companionship with those who do not share our faith” but who belong to the brotherhood of monotheistic descendants of Abraham.
“You know well that the church wishes to impose nothing on anyone, and that she merely asks to live in freedom, in order to reveal the one whom she cannot hide, Christ Jesus,” he said.
Another important gesture that won favor for Benedict was the softening of his opposition to Turkey’s long-sought membership in the European Union.
In a reversal of sorts, the pope told Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would support EU membership for Turkey. He previously had maintained that Turkey, as a Muslim nation, was “in permanent contrast” with Europe and did not belong.
Some Turkish commentators said they thought Benedict backtracked toward the end of his visit when he spoke of the need to preserve Europe’s Christian roots. But another reading of those comments suggests that he was stating the conditions under which Turkey could join the EU, conditions such as respect for religious freedom that the EU itself is demanding.