Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey has become a major global intrigue echoing the public response to his Regensburg lecture. The heightened attention of both the Christian and Islamic worlds to the papal visit to the Bosporus coast has been provoked primarily by the fact that its destination point is not so much Istanbul as Constantinople
As the trip of the Pope of Rome to Turkey, planned almost a year ago, is approaching, there is a growing tension in certain religious and public circles dripping down gradually to the faithful. The succession of events on the eve of the trip has heated the universal expectations to the highest possible degree. With the collective Islamic emotional explosion caused by Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg University still resounding, thousands of angry Istanbul people carrying anti-papal slogans, the promises of Turkish nationalists to strangle the pope ‘with their own hands’ together with the Holy See’s chief ‘ecumenical’ adviser Cardinal Walter Kasper, and finally the recent rumors that the papal delegation are to be protected by the Mossad bodyguards – all this seems to lay out a plot for a fashionable religious-political suspense story. Some appropriate bestsellers about an inevitable attempt on the pope’s life in Istanbul with the necessary involvement of local special services and masons have already been offered to the public by apt publishers in Ankara.
The relevance of such an interreligious detective story may seem more than obvious at a time when it is believed to be a good form and a good knowledge of the subject to consider all the developments in this area through the prism of dialogue of civilizations and general pacifist goals of world religions. The principled coldness of the Turkish authorities and the indignation of the masses deliberately heated up by the Islamic Grey Wolves as reaction to the papal visit are essentially signs showing that in reality the Islamic-Christian relations will never be serenely simple and capable of being reduced to joint diplomatic declarations. Their conflict-prone nature however lies elsewhere. The charges of insults to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad brought against the pope, which are called to stir up mass protests, actually conceal the real anxiety that the Turkish elite feel towards the pontiff’s visit to Istanbul. Moreover, the reason for this anxiety is the same as that which compels Orthodox Churches, considering all the troubles of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, to follow closely the upcoming meeting between Benedict XVI and the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Indeed, the resolute statements of Turkey’s president for religious affairs Ali Bardakoglu about his intention to remind the pope that it is inadmissible to insult the prophet have made almost unnoticed the recent statements made by the president of the Pontific Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Poupard. He says it is not at all consolidation of relations between religions that has been put in the center of the visit by the head of the Catholic Church to the Islamic state but rather ecumenical dialogue and reflection on the ways of developing Christian unity. Benedict XVI is coming to what was Constantinople first of all as head of the Roman See whose ecumenical ecclesial authority has determined the policy of the popes for centuries. The forthcoming meeting of the successor at St. Peter’s throne with the Patriarch of Constantinople to take place on St. Andrew’s Day is utterly symbolic. Moreover, this symbolism, which is often to be followed in church policy by practical action, appears to be a solid irritant for the Turkish authorities who are reluctant to hear even a hint of Bartholomew’s claim to the status of ‘Ecumenical’ Patriarch of the Orthodox world.
The Islamic vector of the pontificate of John Paul II’s conservative successor has not been specified yet. Indeed, to regard a quotation from a medieval manuscript given by a former theological professor with proper reservations as the Vatican’s declaration of ‘cold war’ on Islam is at least a hasty proposal. At the same time, it is anybody’s guess whether the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who ignored the demands to apologize ‘for Regensburg’, will be marked with as significant and almost revolutionary statements as Nostra Aetate made by Rome II with regard to non-Christian religions at Vatican II.
Meanwhile, the ecumenical vector of Benedict XVI’s policy seems to have grown ever more consistent after the first statement he made immediately after his election to the See of Rome, pledging to commit himself to the visible unity of Christian Churches. The Eastern Christian component of ecumenism appears to be a priority for the pope, who admitted a month ago a desire to bring nearer the moment of communion with the Orthodox Greeks. However, the historically establish multi-polar nature of the Orthodox world will demand that the Holy See elaborate as multi-component and multifaceted policy of relations with National Orthodox Churches. The meeting of the Orthodox-Catholic Theological Commission in September in Belgrade has reaffirmed that it is inadmissible to use uniform methods in the dialogue between the Roman Catholic West and the polycentric Orthodox East and that it is necessary to use individual reciprocal ways in every particular case. The Istanbul meeting between Benedict XVI and one of the Orthodox patriarchs, even if more ready than others to make a compromise on the issue of the papal primacy, will still remain a meeting between the leader of the Catholic world and the head of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. And the opinion of the religious leader of a comparatively small Greek flock to be expressed in a future joint declaration made together with the Pope of Rome will never become, however strong the wish, a testimony to an ‘ecumenical breakthrough’ in the awareness of the millions-strong Orthodox world.