In the Best Interests of Both Sides

While the Roman Catholic Church welcomes the Pope's visit as a chance to mend its damaged relationship with the Muslims, the Turkish government is taking advantage of the opportunity to present the Pope as chief witness to Turkey being part of Europe. By Ömer Erzeren

Pope Benedict XVI. and Turkey Prime Minister Erdogan in Istanbul (photo: AP)
After the confrontation in Regensburg, the Vatican had evidently made thorough preparations to make sure the trip would meet with a positive response from the Turkish Muslims

​​Many media pundits prophesied that the Pope's trip to Turkey would do nothing to defuse the conflict between the spiritual head of the Catholic Church and the Muslims sparked almost three months ago by a speech the Pope gave in Regensburg.

A "high risk factor" was assumed. In his much-publicized speech, the Pope had quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying that Islam was a violent religion that knew no tolerance. In advance of the Pope's arrival in Istanbul, the press devoted a great deal of coverage to an anti-papal demonstration attended by some 10,000 people.

Furthermore, all the wrangling over whether a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan would take place at all only served to strengthen the impression that the country was less than thrilled about its guest. It didn't help either that Ratzinger, in his days as cardinal, had repeatedly spoken out against Turkey's membership in the European Union. During the papal elections, this detail of his biography was continually emphasized in Turkey.

Unwarranted fears

But fears that the Pope would encounter an icy reception in Turkey already proved groundless during the first two days of his trip. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, on his way to Riga for the NATO summit, met with the venerated Vatican guest at the airport in Ankara. Conciliatory words were exchanged.

photo: AP
Pope Benedict XVI, second from right in center, accompanied by Muslim clerics, security officers and other prelates, visits the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

​​When Erdogan spoke at a subsequent press conference of the Pope's support of Turkey in its bid for EU membership, the ice was broken once and for all. After the confrontation in Regensburg, the Vatican had evidently made thorough preparations to make sure the trip would meet with a positive response from the Turkish Muslims. One gesture after another was made.

At his visit to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic, Benedict XVI entered a quote from Atatürk, "Peace at home – peace in the world," in the condolence book. In Ephesus, where Maria is worshipped as the mother of Jesus, he even spoke a few words in Turkish and waved the Turkish flag.

He quoted Pope John XXIII, who was papal nuntius in Ankara from 1935 to 1944, when he said, "I love the Turks." In his sermon, he highlighted the common features of Islam and Christianity: for example, the house of Maria is also a pilgrimage site for Muslims who worship her.

Positive media response

The Pope's efforts met with overwhelmingly positive headlines in the Turkish media. "Against all expectations in the western world, the Pope's visit began in a congenial climate," wrote the popular newspaper Hürriyet. In its online edition, the paper lamented the perception in the Christian world that the Pope was supposedly an unwelcome guest.

To counter this impression, many letters from readers were published welcoming the Pope. "What a wonderful kick-off: in Ankara, the Pope announces to the world that Islam is a religion of peace," wrote Hürriyet.

"The Pope Calls for Dialogue," headlined the liberal daily paper Milliyet, and continued: "All of the worrying was for nothing. The Pope's visit is off to a good start. The dialogue between the cultures and religions is of vital significance; our future depends on it."

Only in the eyes of the lesser press, such as the right-wing extremist, Islamist Vakit was the Pope's visit an annoyance. Criticism of the Turkish government could also be found in the country's media. The regime was accused of showing too much reserve in advance of the visit. Many alleged that it was a great political blunder to keep everyone guessing whether a meeting would take place between the Pope and the Turkish prime minister.

Image cultivation

Nevertheless, at the latest following Erdogan's statement that the anti-papal demonstrators were merely "marginal groups," it was clear that the Turkish government would consider the Pope's visit a triumph for foreign policy.

And the Vatican was likewise determined, in the wake of the irritation and mass protests in Islamic countries set off by the Regensburg speech, to send a positive signal to the Islamic world through the Pope's tour of Turkey.

The trip, which took place under the spiritual slogan "Christ is our peace," soon developed into an event from which both sides profited politically. The Roman Catholic Church took the opportunity to improve its damaged relations with the Muslims. And the Turkish regime seized the chance to present the Pope as chief witness to the fact that Turkey is indeed part of Europe.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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