Last month’s elections in Turkey shed light on troubling developments in a crucial country in the Middle East. While international attention has been focused on the test of wills over Ukraine, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has been engaged in a destructive battle for influence in that country with the leader of a powerful Islamist constituency. Fethullah Gulen may live in self-imposed exile in a compound in Pennsylvania, but his network of so-called Gulenists operates many influential organizations within Turkey, and its members hold prominent positions within the Turkish government. The Gulenists were once important partners with the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., but now Mr. Gulen and Mr. Erdogan are at loggerheads, a state of affairs that could undo much of the recent economic and political growth in Turkey.
Prime Minister Erdogan was not up for election in March, but his party performed strongly at the polls. Mr. Erdogan may now seek to change the country’s rules so that he can run for prime minister for a fourth time. His expansive push for power, which in reaction to popular protests included shutting down access to Twitter and YouTube, is disquieting in a country that was once seen as a stabilizing force in a conflict-ridden region.
Turkey’s troubles are especially worrisome for those looking for models of authority in the Middle East. Modern Turkey was founded as a resolutely secular state. Working together, the Gulenists and the Sunni-dominated A.K.P. pushed for a greater role for religion in the public square. The government followed through on some laudable initiatives, like restoring confiscated Christian properties to their original owners, but it also excluded the Alevis, a more liberal Shiite sect, from the halls of power. The recent turmoil is another disheartening sign that the road to representative democracy in the Middle East is long indeed.
Welcoming the Stranger
Imam Oumar Kobine Layama arrived at the house of the archbishop with only one bag in hand. Displaced by the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic, the Muslim leader sought refuge at the home of Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui. The archbishop welcomed him. “Our house, in reality, is God’s house,” Archbishop Nzapalainga told Catholic News Service during a trip to Washington. “When I open my doors to receive a brother, I am doing what God asks me to do.” The archbishop is not alone. Several Catholic and Protestant churches have welcomed strangers of all faiths during this time of need in the country.
While the violence in the region is often portrayed as pitting Christians against Muslims, the conflict is motivated more by political unrest than by religious beliefs. Imam Layama, Archbishop Nzapalainga and the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, a Protestant leader, recently visited the United States to discuss the need for greater harmony among people of faith and the lessons they have learned from interfaith interactions. The religious leaders have welcomed not only the presence of these displaced persons but also their diverse faith traditions. “The temptation is always to consider them as people—as new sheep—to be converted,” the Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou said. “At no moment did I ever obligate people or require people to come and pray with me.”
This openness to the “other” is a hopeful sign amid so much pain and suffering in the region. We hope the example of these men inspires love and respect among people of all faith traditions in their country and around the world.
Since his election just over a year ago, Pope Francis has swiftly become a “pope of surprises.” By his demeanor and disarming way of doing things, Francis has projected the Petrine office in a new light. The images are embedded in our memory: his requests for prayers; his simple way of living and dressing; the genuine embrace of people he meets in the course of the day; the unpretentious way he acknowledges those who are ill and infirm—like the unprecedented audience with deaf and blind people—all the while evoking stories from the Gospels. And, of course, he radiates cheerfulness and kindness as a joyful reflection of his love for God and his fellow human beings. However, there was one thing he recently did that made the world stop momentarily in its tracks.
Pope Francis went to confession.
There is nothing surprising in that—popes do go to confession. What made it noteworthy was that he chose to do so in a public manner before he heard the confessions of others on March 28 at St. Peter’s Basilica. Seemingly oblivious to the media glare, the pope walked to the confessional, knelt and made his confession. By doing so, Francis has impressed upon the world a basic truth: no matter what a person’s station in life, whether “important” or not, we are all in need of divine mercy, even a pope.