ISTANBUL — Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Turkey is considered among the biggest challenges of his papacy, but for the Muslim leader who once welcomed his predecessor, Benedict XVI, it’s a clear sign of the pope’s interest in the Islamic world and a loud call for peace.
“We’re experiencing difficulties in the Islamic world as result of the violence of some specific groups, and there are some in Islam who reject everything that comes from the West,” said Mustafa Cagrici, who was the mufti of Istanbul in 2006 when Benedict visited the country.
“Symbolically, it’s an important gesture of peace that the pope is coming to, and being welcomed by, an Islamic country,” Cagrici said.
Pope Francis will visit Turkey Nov. 28-30, the sixth foreign trip of his papacy. Francis will be the third pope in a row, after John Paul II and Benedict, to visit Turkey.
Although the formal reason behind the papal trip is to strengthen the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, for Cagrici the trip also means that a long-term connection has been established between the Vatican and the Turkish Muslim community.
“The fact that Pope Francis is coming so soon after Benedict XVI came is an important sign of commitment,” he said. “Turkey is the most democratic country in the Islamic world, and a fluent relationship with Europe is a very good thing.”
The former head of religious affairs for Istanbul, a respected figure among the Turks, Cagrici made global news in 2006 because he was the person in charge of welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the “Blue Mosque.”
During the visit, Benedict and Cagrici shared a moment of prayer facing Mecca.
“That moment,” he told Crux, “was particularly significant because it was requested by Benedict.”
In preparation for the visit, the Islamic leader had asked the pontiff if he had any specific request for the encounter, and his only request was a moment in silent prayer.
At the time, Turkish media considered the gesture as a symbolic apology from Pope Benedict, who months before had generated controversy for quoting a Byzantine emperor who linked Muhammad, the founder of Islam, with violence. Benedict cited the quotation during a speech in Regensburg, Germany.
According to Cagrici, an apology wasn’t needed because “in Regensburg, Benedict wasn’t giving an opinion, he was simply stating historical facts.”
“Benedict did a lot during the visit, but also before and after in his papacy, to build bridges with the Islamic world,” he said.
As an academic and religious man, Cagrici said he welcomes Pope Francis’ visit, since it will help reduce tensions between the religious minorities and Muslims that represent 98 percent of the country’s population.
When questioned about the violence striking Iraq and Syria, where terrorist groups are annihilating Christians and Sunni Muslims in the name of Islam, Cagrici said he believes it has no foundation in Islamic doctrine.
“It’s true, both the Quran and the Bible have passages that justify violence,” he said. “But there are many more arguments for peace. Violence done in the name of religion is rooted in ignorance.”
Much of what’s happening today in Iraq, according to Cagrici, leads back to colonial occupation and was perpetuated by local governments. Governments have created such a state of despair and mistrust that the civil society finds hope in terrorist groups, he said, and gives them support that allows them to grow.
“I’m not trying to justify them,” he said. “But after being failed by the political class and forgotten by the economic system, the marginalized see no other solution than the one presented by terrorist groups.”