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Taking on Turkey's Secular State


Pope Benedict XVI planned his visit to Turkey as an ecumenical Christian encounter with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the titular head of Orthodoxy.

aamountainThe inflamed reaction to his Regensburg lecture in September turned the trip into an encounter with the world of Islam. And there is a third dimension — the encounter of religious faith with the aggressive secularism of the Turkish state.

The primary purpose of the trip is the least remarkable. Like Pope Paul VI in 1967 and John Paul II in 1979, Benedict visits the Patriarch of Constantinople to work toward Christian unity. John Paul sincerely believed that unity between Catholics and Orthodox was imminent; that turned out not to be case, but relations between Rome and Constantinople are so warm that such visits, once historic, are now routine.

Anything but routine is the Islamic dimension of the trip. Tuesday, the Pope’s first day in Turkey, was devoted to the Turkish state and the question of Islam. Benedict reversed his earlier opposition to Turkey entering the European Union, granting a (weak) endorsement. The irony is that it is unlikely that Turkey will join the EU anytime soon. Despite all protestations to the contrary, after the bombings in Madrid and London, violence in the Netherlands and frequent rioting in France, there is little enthusiasm in Europe for including 70 million poor Muslims in the EU. That may not be fair to the Turks, but nevertheless it is widely expected that any timetable for joining will soon be set aside.

As for the encounter between Christianity and Islam, Benedict reiterated the main point he made in Regensburg, namely that violence in the name of religion can never be justified. Yesterday he mentioned by name Andrea Santoro, the Catholic priest killed in Trabzon, Turkey, by an Islamist terrorist during the Danish cartoon crisis last February. His many words of esteem for Muslims likely made more clear the argument he advanced at Regensburg — namely that all believers, Christian or Muslim, need recourse to reason to purify faith of the corruption that can lead to violence. It is an argument that should be welcome in Turkey, where Muslims themselves have suffered Islamist violence.

Surely one of the most curious meetings in the modern history of the papacy took place Tuesday, when Benedict met with Ali Bardakoglu, president of the staterun religious affairs department. Dr. Bardakoglu, a government official speaking on behalf of Islam in an officially secular state, instructed the Pope on the virtues of Islam, and further admonished him not to waste time in discussing the “theology of religions.” Ignoring the incongruity of the state religious bureaucracy instructing religious leaders to stay out of religious questions, Benedict gently insisted upon “freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities.”

Such broad religious liberty the Turkish state does not offer, as it pursues a rigid secularism that limits both Islamic and Christian activities.

Bartholomew himself faces limitations upon his ministry, and the Pope’s visit is in part an act of solidarity with a fellow Christian pastor under duress. Benedict’s argument is that not only is religious freedom a human right, but that suppression of religion altogether can only pose a long-term problem for the development of Turkish society. Anti-religious ideas and policies often produce a reactionary religious extremism. Turkish politics is dealing precisely with such potential problems today.

Today, Benedict will visit the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. For over 1,000 years, the great Byzantine Church of Holy Wisdom stood as the seat of the Christendom’s second city — Constantinople. Even today, Bartholomew’s official title is Archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome. Constantinople was a great Christian city until the Ottoman conquest of 1453, at which time the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque — an act equal to the conversion of St. Peter’s in Rome or St. Paul’s in London to a mosque. Then in 1935, in an act of cultural violence against a millennium and a half of history, the Turkish state secularized the Hagia Sophia, turning it into a museum. Pope Paul VI prayed on his knees in the Hagia Sophia in 1967, causing discomfort to his secular hosts. John Paul refrained from any act of worship in 1979.

When I visited the Hagia Sophia some years ago, I of course prayed — a small, and likely unnoticed act of defiance against state enforced secularism in a place devoted for 1,600 years to the worship of God. Benedict will likely not do so today, lest he inflame the perpetually flammable, but he will carefully make the argument that bad religious ideas cannot be answered by anti-religious ideas; bad religious ideas must be answered by good religious ideas.

Turkey today is wrestling with great questions of cultural identity, brought to the surface by the European question, and the role of religion, as explicitly Islamic parties demand a greater role in Turkish public life. The vagaries of history have also entrusted to Turkish custody the second great city of Christendom, and the enduring, tiny Christian communities that keep that reality alive. All of this belongs to Turkey’s noble history, argues Benedict, and cannot be addressed justly without acknowledging the rich cultural patrimony of the Turks, marked by both Christianity and Islam.

It’s an argument that needs to be heard, and strangely enough, it is an argument that perhaps can be made more explicitly by Benedict than others. That is the service he intends his Turkish trip to provide.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Taking on Turkey’s secular state." National Post, (Canada) November 30, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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