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Posted Online on Sunday, 10 December 2006 15:09 IST

Muslim Islamic NewsPope's PR visit to Turkey

"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Arabs have replaced Italians as objects of suspicion, radicals are quickly labelled terrorists.

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The Milli Gazette

Pope Benedict XVI has ended his four-day visit to Turkey amid wide applause by the Turkish media as the Pontiff made several gestures that the Turks like to see and hear. During the visit he faced Mecca and prayed shoulder to shoulder with Turkey's Grand Mufti in the historic Blue Mosque. He shook the hand of Turkey's Director of Religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, one of his sternest critics. 

Politically, he spoke favorably on Turkey 's two important causes: that the Muslim nation should have a place in the European Union and that the Cyprus question should be resolved by the United Nations -- whereas the Greeks insist on the EU-based solution because they are a part the bloc but Turkey is not. 

Known as the "anti-Turkish pope", Benedict said just eight months before his election as Pope - when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - that Ankara's EU membership would be a "a grave error... against the tide of history". In an interview with a French journal, Le Figaro, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger claimed that since the majority of Turkey's population was Muslim, Turkey would contradict Europe , and its accession to the EU would be a mistake. Ratzinger said Turkey should seek its future in an association of Islamic nations, not with the EU, which has Christian roots. 

In a reversal of sorts, the pope told Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who reluctantly welcomed him at the airport, that he would support EU membership for Turkey.

Understandably, the Turkish Daily News commented on the final day of his visit: "The pope is wining hearts and minds." The mass-circulation Hurriyet remarked: " the pope was making gesture after gesture." 

The Anatolian Times said "Pope Benedict XVI is our guest since the moment he set foot on our soil. The words he used in Germany this September don't change this fact. Not we should be ashamed of those words, but the pope should." 

Echoing the New York Times comments - that Pope's relations with Muslims were only one facet of the trip and for the Vatican, not the most important one in the long run - the Anatolian Times said that everybody knows that although the pope came to Turkey with an invitation from President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, he attaches more importance to his meeting with Fener Greek Patriarch Bartholomeos. "This shows us that the visit aims at bridging the gap between the Orthodox and Catholic Church rather than Christianity and Islam." 

On the second day of his first visit to a Muslim country, Pope visited the historic Blue Mosque and prayed with the Turkish Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, facing towards Mecca . According to a Vatican spokesman, the visit to the Blue Mosque was added to his itinerary at the last minute after much debate inside the Vatican, where officials were seeking ways to calm Muslim rage over comments by the pope in September that linked Islam to violence. 

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the stop at the Blue Mosque was added to the pope's itinerary as "a sign of respect." He noted that a Christian believer can pray in a mosque. "With this visit to the mosque we have made significant steps forward," Lombardi said, adding it would form the basis to launch a deeper dialogue. 

Benedict's Blue Mosque visit was the second by a Catholic Roman Pontiff in history after Pope John Paul II who visited the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in 2001. 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, the late Pope Paul, 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 emphasized. "Benedict XVI did with the Muslims yesterday what John Paul II did with the Jews."

Perhaps the New York Times' Nov. 30 report about Pope's visit to the Blue Mosque provides an insight to the mind of Pope Benedict about Islam and Muslims: "But even with the symbolism of the mosque visit and more diplomatic style, Benedict showed on Thursday, the day before he returns home, many of his basic concerns about the relationship between Christianity and Islam, as well as between West and East, had not vanished. Twice on Thursday he referred to the "Christian roots of Europe" - a long theme of Benedict's, which has provoked some anger as minimizing others who now live there, especially the growing Muslim population." 

The New York Times said that the Pope went further in a joint declaration with Bartholomew, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, referring also to the Christian roots of Turkey - a historical fact, with the Byzantine church based here for more than a millennium, but which still seemed to run the risk of offending his Muslim hosts. 

"On Thursday, he again seemed to endorse Turkey 's entry into the European Union - repeating the good-will gesture he made on Tuesday, his first day here - but tied that step to specific progress in respecting the rights of minorities here," the paper pointed out. 

Of the European Union, the pope wrote in his joint declaration with Bartholomew: "Those engaged in this great project should not fail to take into consideration all aspects affecting the inalienable rights of the human person, especially religious freedom, a witness and guarantor of respect for all other freedoms. In every step toward unification" they wrote, "minorities must be protected, with their cultural traditions and the distinguishing features of their religion." 

According to the New York Times, the Pope repeated a theme from his speech in September in Regensburg, Germany - about his worry about violence in the cause of religion - though without mentioning any religion by name. "Above all, we wish to affirm that killing innocent people in God's name is an offense against him and against human dignity," he and Bartholomew wrote in their statement. 

In his Regensburg University lecture, the Pope, using the words "jihad" and "holy war," had quoted criticisms of the prophet Mohammed by a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II, during a debate with a learned Persian. "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached," Benedict quoted the emperor as saying. 

Pope's spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, also reaffirmed the Regensburg speech when he said after Pope's visit to the Blue Mosque that the speech, however painful, had helped open a new vein of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. " Regensburg bore a positive fruit, in a certain sense."

At the same time, echoing the theme of his Regensburg University lecture, during a speech to the diplomatic corps in Ankara, Benedict denounced violence cloaked in religious fervor. He called on religious leaders to "utterly refuse" any form of violence in the name of faith, but carefully avoided a direct reference to Islam, though he said the "disturbing" conflicts in the world show "no sign of abating." 

Pope's visit to the Blue Mosque preceded his meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, chief of Turkey's Religious Affairs Department who bluntly told the Pontiff that the so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world and growing Islamophobia hurts all Muslims. Muslims "are offended by such accusations and claims, which are not based on any historical fact," Bardakoglu said. "It should not be forgotten that such accusations can only serve to encourage those who perform wrongdoings on behalf of religion by way of exploitation." 

The comment appeared to be a reference to Benedict's September remarks. However, Benedict told Bardakoglu: "Peace is the basis of all religions." 

This time, Pope Benedict quoted 11th-century Pope Gregory VII after a North African Muslim prince acted with great benevolence towards the Christians under his jurisdiction. "Pope Gregory spoke of the particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another 'because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the creator and ruler of the world'," he said. 

But many Turks were not convinced by the kind words. Bardakoglu said that the visit, although "a step in the right direction," would not suffice to heal the hurt his remarks had made. "What the Turkish people were expecting was an apology and this was missing in the Pope's remarks," said Sinasi Gunduz, professor of religious history at Istanbul University. 

In the final analysis, the pope's visit to Turkey was primarily aimed at highlighting Christian unity and the bridging of the 1,000-year-old rift between Catholics and the Orthodox, who do not recognize the authority of the pope. But comments he made in September critical of Islam enraged the Muslim world and forced him to change the agenda, using this visit to reach out to Muslims and attempt to repair the damage. 

During the four-day visit, the Pope toed a careful line of not backing down in substance - with the exception of cautiously blessing the progress of Turkey into the European Union while presenting a more open, warmer face to an Islamic world that now deeply distrusts him. However, the question remains, has Pope changed his belief that Islam is "evil and inhuman"? 

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine, the American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com, December 6, 2006 

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