Pilgrimage to Constantinople

With the exception of his appearance before his old faculty at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI’s travels have been quiet affairs. Even a trip to Spain last July, which threatened to erupt into controversy over policy differences with that country’s Socialist government, transpired so uneventfully that some Vatican officials were surprised. The pope’s upcoming trip to Turkey, Nov. 28-30, may be a different matter. It will be his first visit to a Muslim country, where hostility toward Christianity has been growing.

In the last year, one priest has been killed in Turkey and at least two others attacked. Various individuals have threatened the pope’s life if he persists in his mission. Earlier this month a gunman was arrested for firing at the Italian consulate in protest of the visit. Memories of the pope’s public opposition, when he was a cardinal, to Turkey’s admission to the European Union on the grounds that it does not share Europe’s culture are still raw; and his use of a controversial quote about irrational violence in Islam in his Regensburg lecture has unfortunately further inflamed those who oppose the visit. Still, the Turkish government has continued to extend its invitation, and the pope has bravely held to his commitment.


A principal purpose of the trip is to strengthen relations with the Orthodox Church and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I by attending the celebration of the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30), patron of the see of Constantinople. How fraught with difficulty the journey may be is evident from the tensions between the Turkish government and the patriarchate over constraints Turkey has imposed on the religious freedom of the Greek Orthodox Church. Following a recent meeting, the North American Orthodox Catholic Theological Consultation identified several of the difficulties faced by the ecumenical patriarchate.

The group’s statement declared: By decisions reached in 1923 and 1970, the government imposed significant limitations on the election of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Even today, the Turkish state does not recognize the historic role that the Patriarch plays among Orthodox Christians outside Turkey. The Turkish government closed the Patriarchate’s Theological School on the island of Halki in 1971 and, in spite of numerous appeals from governmental and religious authorities, still does not allow it to reopen, severely limiting the patriarchate’s ability to train candidates for the ministry.

Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage offers an opportunity not only to express solidarity with the Orthodox in their straitened circumstances, but for all sides to find ways out of these historic difficulties.

The Turkish situation is not, as some wrongly imagine, a straightforward Islam-versus-the-West scenario. Turkey is a bridge between Europe and the Middle Eastand not just geographically. It is an Islamic country with a moderate Muslim party now leading the government, but its constitution, vigorously upheld by the military, involves an especially stringent form of Turkish secularism that struggles to hold down religious fundamentalism among the population. Since the time of Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder and first president (1923-38), the country has struggled to modernizethat is to say, Westernizeby adopting European fashions, technology and economics as well as the forms of parliamentary government; but it has often fallen short of adopting the deeper Western values of respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Among Turkey’s elites there is profound fear of political and cultural fragmentation, particularly of secession on the part of the sizable Kurdish population. Intellectual dissent from the standards of official Turkish identityby acknowledging, for example, the Armenian genocideremains a criminal offense. Though members of the Greek Orthodox Church make up only a minuscule group, Turkey, as heir to the Ottoman Empire, clings to a centuries-old enmity toward Greece and in particular the Greek Orthodox Church, as the custodian of the Hellenic soul.

The pope deserves credit for supporting the Orthodox Church on such hostile terrain. In choosing to visit Turkey, he has taken on a Herculean challenge that combines Turkish-European, Muslim-Christian and Orthodox-Catholic relations. At the heart of each problematic relationship lie questions about the status of human rights and religious liberty. God willing, even if the trip provides no immediate breakthroughs, the pope’s journey will prepare the way for peaceful progress on these issues in the future.

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