- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

Many commentators, Turks and non-Turks, were worried about the last week’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey. His comments about Islam at the now-famous Regensburg address had alienated Muslims all around the world and now he was to visit a predominantly Muslim nation led by a conservative government. Wasn’t this dangerous and likely to make matters worse?

Well, it did not turn out that way. To the contrary, the visit has been remarkably constructive. Although the Holy Father came to Turkey mainly to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, he has been able to build important bridges with Muslims.

The rapprochement was bilateral. It actually started with the warm welcome Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accorded the pope’s arrival. Mr. Erdogan, a practicing Muslim, gave a press conference after his meeting with the pontiff and was asked about the Regensburg speech. “His Holiness expressed to me his respect to Islam and this is most welcome,” Mr. Erdogan said, “therefore we will look to the future, not to the past.”

From his first moment, the pope made several other gestures Turks liked to hear and see. Politically, he spoke favorably on Turkey’s two important causes — that the Muslim nation should have a place in Europe and that the Cyprus question should be solved by the United Nations. The Greeks insist on a European Union-based solution, because they are a part of it but Turkey is not. Especially the pontiff’s positive approach to Turkey’s EU bid, which has entered in a period of “slow motion,” has been widely welcomed in the Turkish press.

In Izmir, where he visited the House of Mary, the pope also said kind words about the Turkish nation, opened his sermon with a sentence in Turkish (“My dear brothers, may the Lord be with you”), and waived a sizable Turkish flag. The widely read moderate Muslim daily Zaman described these as “Gestures from the pope with Turkish and the Turkish flag.” According to mainstream Hurriyet, the pope was making “gesture after gesture.”

As for Islam, the pope spoke with respect repeatedly. His meeting and joint press conference with the supreme Muslim authority in the country, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs Ali Bardakoglu, was a moment of reconciliation. Actually Mr. Bardakoglu implicitly criticized the notion the pope had seemed to have implied at Regensburg, i.e. that Islam promotes violence. He instead declared Islam to be “a religion of piece,” and the pope agreed.

Actually, the two men of God expressed respect to each other’s faith throughout the meeting. While Mr. Bardakoglu emphasized Islam’s reverence for “previous prophets,” including Jesus, the pope stressed that both faiths are monotheistic. At the end, Mr. Bardakoglu gave the pope a present: A decorated vase which had the Koranic verse, “God is the light of the heavens and the Earth.”

These gestures impressed Muslim pundits. One such figure, Huseyin Hatemi, a columnist for the popular Islamic newspaper Yeni Safak, wrote a piece titled “Welcome to the pope” in which he argued that the pontiff had implicitly retreated from his arguments at Regensburg. “That’s why I love the pope now,” Mr. Hatemi wrote, “he has stressed our commonality in monotheism.” Mr. Hatemi ended his column with a greeting in the language of the pontiff: “Herzlich Willkommen, Bruder.”

At his historic meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, the pope cultivated his effort to revitalize Christianity, which had created some concerns in Turkey, with an ecumenical outreach. The Common Declaration that the two church leaders signed emphasized Christian brotherhood, but also noted the importance of “an authentic and honest inter-religious dialogue.” And while stressing on the need to “preserve [the] Christian roots” of Europe, it noted that the Continent should remain “open to other religions and to their cultural contributions.” That was simply music to Turkish ears.

Of course there were more close-minded Islamist or nationalist circles who continued to resent the pope for what he said at Regensburg about Islam — and a handful of Marxists who tried to protest him as “the pope of capitalism” — but they were marginal. The rally they organized in Istanbul two days before the pontiff’s arrival — bluntly titled “Pope, don’t come!” — made the headlines in many Western newspapers, but many of those reports failed to add that the Islamist party that organized the rally, namely Saadet (Happiness) Party, received only 3 percent of the votes in the last election.

The zenith of the pope’s Turkish expedition was perhaps his visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. As the second pope in history to visit a Muslim shrine, the pontiff walked into the magnificent building with the Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici. After showing him around courteously, the mufti asked his guest whether he would like praise God with him in a moment of silence. The pope, again courteously, agreed and the two men stood together in the presence of God, murmuring prayers according to their own traditions. This scene was moving for many Turks.

“This picture defies an important name,” said Taha Akyol, a prominent columnist, “and that is Samuel Huntington.”

MUSTAFA AKYOL

A Turkish journalist and writer. His blog is at www.thewhitepath.com

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