ANKARA/ISTANBUL, Turkey — Pope Francis came to Turkey this weekend in part to stress religious freedom, a message of clear relevance in a region where the self-declared “Islamic State” has had catastrophic consequences for religious minorities, very much including the pope’s own Christian flock.
It’s a familiar theme from Francis, as is the cautious support he voiced for anti-ISIS military action, saying “it’s legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor.”
What has been new about this visit to Turkey, however, has been the pushback from his Muslim hosts.
On Friday, both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who aspires to a leadership role across the Islamic world, and Mehmet Görmez, who heads Turkey’s powerful Presidency of Religious Affairs, gave Francis an earful about what they see as another religious freedom issue: A rising tide of “Islamophobia” in the West.
In a speech Friday at his glittering new $600 million presidential palace, Erdogan told Francis about what he called “the very serious and rapid trend of growth in racism, discrimination, and hatred of others, especially Islamophobia in the West,” basically asking the pope to take it up as an issue.
Görmez echoed the point.
“We feel anxiety and concern for the future, that the Islamophobic paranoia that has already been spread among Western public opinion is being used as a pretext for massive pressures, intimidation, discrimination, alienation, and actual attacks against our Muslim brothers and sisters living in the West,” he said.
The gist seemed to be that if Francis wants Turkey’s help against ISIS and Islamic radicalism, then they want him to fight anti-Muslim prejudice in his own backyard.
Though a Vatican spokesman said Friday night that the pope didn’t have any specific reaction to the comments, it’s easy to anticipate what some of his Vatican aides and many Catholic commentators are likely to say.
They’ll say, yes, the Catholic Church ought to oppose religious discrimination no matter who it affects. Yet to compare what’s happening to Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria today, they’ll argue, to the fate of Muslim immigrants in France or Belgium isn’t just mixing apples and oranges; it’s a borderline moral outrage.
High youth unemployment rates or a sense of being outcasts, they’ll argue, are real problems, but they pale in comparison to death threats against whole Christian communities, physical assaults on a massive scale, and what basically amounts to a program of religious cleansing.
To use perceived “Islamophobia” as an excuse to delay action on Islamic radicalism, critics will argue, is at best disingenuous. At worst, it’s complicity in people’s suffering.
Critics also will say that Erdogan has seized upon Islamophobia not because he’s genuinely concerned about religious freedom, but because of his ambitions to position himself as the de facto ruler of a 21st-century version of the Ottoman Empire.
In many ways, those critics will have a point. Yet there are three good reasons why Pope Francis still might seriously consider the proposed Turkish deal.
First, no matter where they may rank on scales of moral urgency, many Muslim immigrants in the West do face real challenges. Often, they’re precisely the sort of people living on the social margins whose fate already preoccupies this pope.
Francis routinely calls for greater sympathy for immigrants, and it would be no stretch, or distortion of his thought, to add a couple of stock examples about Muslims in Europe.
Francis also brings credibility to the cause because of his lifelong friendships with members of the small Muslim community in Argentina, so he knows the issues they face from the inside out.
Second, whatever one makes of Erdogan or his pretensions, Turkey is undeniably a major force in the Middle East today. Bordering both Iraq and Syria, its policies toward the Islamic State are critical, as is its treatment of a mushrooming refugee population from those two nations — many of them, for the record, Christians.
If Francis can get a regional power more engaged in resisting the gathering force of Islamic theocracy, and do it at the price of adopting a cause that’s already in his comfort zone, it’s hard to see a serious down side.
Third, there are real concerns about the direction of Turkey under Erdogan, who plays the Islamist card himself from time to time when it seems to serve his political ends.
If Erdogan can claim credit for bringing Francis onto the anti-Islamophobia bandwagon, and the two men develop a partnership, it might draw Erdogan more tightly into the moderate orbit and strengthen the more pro-Western forces in his society.
None of this is to say that Francis would have to go soft on anti-Christian persecution, or ignore the fact that Muslim integration in the West is a two-way street.
Combatting prejudice doesn’t mean that books and movies have to be banned because they offend some Muslim sensitivities, or that Muslim charities funneling support to terrorists shouldn’t be held accountable.
Without succumbing to a faux PC version of what a fight against “Islamophobia” implies, Pope Francis could fairly seamlessly blend it into his basket of concerns. If he does so, he might just win a permanent friend in Turkey.
In the politics of the Middle East today, he could do a lot worse.
The place where Benedict’s better known
One ironic subtext to Francis’ visit to Turkey is that it’s one of the few places where he has some ground to cover to obtain the notoriety enjoyed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
To be sure, Benedict remains a lightning rod in Turkey, beloved by some and still seen with resentment by others. Love him or hate him, however, most Turks have a reaction to Benedict, whereas for many, Francis remains something of a cipher.
Before he was elected pope, Benedict angered many Turks with a 2004 interview with the French paper Le Figaro in which he opposed the country’s candidacy to join the European Union, saying that “Turkey always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe.”
Shortly after his election, Benedict gave his infamous lecture in Regensburg, Germany, in which he cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad “brought things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
That speech set off a firestorm across the Islamic world, including rallies in several Turkish cities where the German pontiff was burned in effigy.
Yet then came Benedict’s late November-early December 2006 trip to Turkey, and everything seemed to change.
Heading into the trip, media outlets and pundits expected an eruption in the “Clash of Civilizations.” On day one, however, Benedict captured every newspaper headline in the country by defining Islam as a “religion of peace.”
He also allayed Turkish fears about Vatican opposition to its EU candidacy, saying that the Vatican’s official position, which is that it has no problem as long as Turkey upholds the Copenhagen criteria on human rights, remained intact.
That was a prelude to the trip’s real shocker: Benedict’s visit to Istanbul’s fabled Blue Mosque, where he stood for a moment of silent prayer alongside Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, both facing the mirhab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca.
Anyone who knew the history of the pope’s thought on the theological perils of interreligious prayer was flabbergasted, and the fact that Benedict would step outside of his own skin in such a public way spoke volumes about how important it was to him to mend fences.
(Francis repeated the gesture on Saturday during his own visit to the Blue Mosque, but given that it had already been done, and that Francis has never been associated with a hard line on interreligious relations like Benedict, it had nothing like the electrifying effect on public opinion.)
In the years that followed that 2006 trip, Benedict worked hard to strengthen ties with Islam and with Muslim nations, including Turkey.
Today, Francis finds himself in an odd position: Listening to Erdogan tell him on Friday that Benedict left office as a “beloved figure” in Turkey, and consoling Francis that he’s sure over time he’ll earn the same affection.
That may well be the case, but since Francis has become used to being on the flattering end of most comparisons with his predecessor, Erdogan’s reference may still be a little disorienting.
If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that in religion as in politics, the things that really matter are local.
Eyes on the ecumenical prize
Media coverage of Francis’ Turkey trip may drop off over the weekend, because Friday was easily the most political day of the three Francis will spend in the country. Saturday morning he moved from Ankara to Istanbul, and the focus shifted to what Christians call “ecumenism,” meaning the effort to put the divided Christian family back together.
Francis celebrated Mass for the Catholic community Saturday night, then led a joint prayer service with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, a position considered “first among equals” in terms of Orthodox leaders.
On Sunday morning, the pope was scheduled to take part in a Greek Orthodox liturgy at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and then to issue a joint declaration with Bartholomew about the press for unity.
All that may seem less riveting to outsiders than the pope talking about ISIS, but it’s important to keep one’s eyes on the prize, because as far as Francis is concerned, his outreach to Bartholomew and the Orthodox is the very heart of this trip.
It’s significant that Francis comes calling on Nov. 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, because Constantinople considers Andrew its patron in the same way that Catholics see St. Peter as the first pope.
In that light, it’s probably useful to offer a few thoughts about Francis’ ecumenical outlook.
In the beginning, the election of a Latin American pope was not greeted with enthusiasm among experts in ecumenism. Unlike their fellow prelates in Europe or North America, Catholic bishops in Latin America don’t generally have much experience working with other Christians, because until recently, the continent has been almost homogeneously Catholic.
What experience they do have often isn’t very positive. The rapid expansion of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America during the last quarter of the 20th century resulted in the conversion of more people from Catholicism to Protestantism than in the century following the Protestant Reformation in Europe, with one study in the 1990s concluding that Catholicism was losing 8,000 people every day. Latin American bishops often came to see other Christians as a threat, derisively referring to them as followers of “sects.”
Bergoglio, however, was always the exception to that rule, beginning with his enthusiasm for the great traditions of Eastern Christianity that developed within Orthodoxy.
The future pope developed an affection for Eastern spirituality early in life, beginning at the age of 12 when he attended the Wilfrid Baron School of the Holy Angels in Buenos Aires. There, he fell under the spell of the Rev. Stepan Chmil, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest of the 22 Eastern churches in full communion with Rome (churches that originate in Eastern Orthodoxy and still follow Orthodox rituals and spirituality, but which recognize the pope as their leader). While at the Wilfrid Baron School, Bergoglio would rise hours before his classmates so he could attend Mass with Chmil, who taught him how to worship in the elaborate Eastern style.
Later, as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio petitioned the Vatican to be named the “ordinary,” meaning the spiritual guide, of all the Eastern Rite Catholics in Argentina, since they had no local hierarchy of their own.
As archbishop, Bergoglio cultivated close ties with the Orthodox churches, attending Christmas Mass every year at the Russian Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral in Buenos Aires. (Because the Orthodox follow the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar, their Christmas service is generally a week after the Catholic observance.)
When Bergoglio organized a prayer for peace in the Middle East in his Buenos Aires cathedral in November 2012, he invited not only Muslim and Jewish leaders, but local Orthodox clergy, too, insisting that he had no right to present himself as the lone representative of the Christian world.
In a small gesture that spoke volumes to Orthodox leaders, when Francis celebrated his installation Mass as pope, he distributed hosts dipped in the Communion wine, an Orthodox practice generally not followed in Catholic liturgies.
In that context, what Pope Francis did at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre on May 25, 2014, seemed natural for him, though it was jaw-dropping for anyone familiar with the long history of animosity between Eastern and Western Christianity.
That night, Francis joined Bartholomew I of Constantinople for a joint prayer service. The pope and the patriarch sat next to one another on the altar, embraced at the beginning and the end, extolled one another’s commitment to unity, and recited the “Our Father” prayer together.
The mutual affection was clear at multiple points, including a moment when Bartholomew returned to his seat after speaking and Francis bent down to kiss his hand. While such encounters had been staged between popes and patriarchs before, they had never taken place in such a preeminent symbol of Christian division.
“We know that much distance still needs to be traveled before we attain that fullness of communion which we ardently desire,” Francis said during the service, conscious of the setting in which he was speaking. “Yet our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyze our progress. We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed.”
Since then, the two men seem almost joined at the hip. The official purpose for Francis’ May 24-26 trip to the Holy Land was to meet Bartholomew, in homage to a famous meeting between Pope Paul VI and another Patriarch of Constantinople 50 years earlier, a meeting that led to the lifting of mutual excommunications between East and West that dated all the way back to 1054. On Saturday, Bartholomew came out to the Istanbul airport to welcome Francis the moment he landed.
Francis’ pursuit of Christian unity begins with the Orthodox in part because that rupture between East and West is the primordial schism, predating the Protestant Reformation by five centuries. There are also fewer doctrinal obstacles to reunion, since the Orthodox generally share Catholicism’s traditional stance on matters of faith and morals. The more humble conception of papal power embodied by Francis is also appealing to many Orthodox, who have long feared that “reunion” with Catholicism in practice would mean being swallowed up by an imperial papacy.
Despite these signs of momentum, serious obstacles remain to full reunion among Christians. In recent years, it’s become common for experts to talk about an “ecumenical winter,” referring to the reality that hopes for swift reunion have been dashed by hard experience.
Francis has no magic formula for dissolving these obstacles. Yet the distinctive Francis touch is less about doctrinal breakthroughs or structural realignments, and more about a new spirit in which friendship between Catholics and their fellow Christians becomes progressively “normalized,” thereby opening vistas for partnership on a wide range of social, cultural, and humanitarian concerns.
A case in point came when Francis invited the Palestinian and Israeli presidents to a prayer for peace on June 8, 2014. Francis asked Bartholomew to join him in hosting the gathering, so it was both the Orthodox and Catholic leaders who officially brought together Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas.
In so doing, Francis created the expectation that in the future, whenever he wants to act as a peacemaker in a global conflict, Bartholomew will be at his side. Aides said the pope was conscious of training people to think in those terms and intended to do so.
Francis’ plan for Christian peace seems to be to grow, via friendship and common cause, into a new spiritual space, where progress on doctrinal and structural fronts may become more thinkable.
In the end, that’s really why Francis came to Turkey.