Pope Benedict XVI met today with the President of the Religious Affairs Directorate of Turkey, Ali Bardakoglu. The Holy Father remarked on the trememdous history of Turkey and offered his esteem for and desire to work together with the Muslim nation and Islam as a whole, “to live together in harmony, peace, and mutual trust.”
The meeting with the Turkish official was Pope Benedict’s first real opportunity to offer official greetings to the country. The Pope said he was, “grateful for the opportunity to visit this land, so rich in history and culture, to admire its natural beauty, to witness for myself the creativity of the Turkish people, and to appreciate your ancient culture and long history, both civil and religious.”
The Pontiff offered thanks for the reception he received from the President and Prime Minister of Turkey and offered thanks for the opportunity to pay his respects at the tomb of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
In the presence of the ranking religious official of Turkey, the Pope offered greetings to all religious leaders of Turkey and offered his “particular esteem and affectionate regard,” to, “all the Muslims in Turkey.”
It was Bardakoglu who offered some of the harshest criticisms of the Pontiff after his September address in Regensburg, Germany. Bardakoglu had accused the Pope of harboring "hatred in his heart" for Muslims. He also said in an interview Monday that the visit, although "a step in the right direction," would not suffice to heal the hurt his comments had caused.
The religious affairs minister said, in his meeting with the Pope today, that, "The so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world and growing Islamophobia hurts all Muslims.”
Though Turkey is a secular state, Muslim fundamentalist groups have been growing in power recently. Many Islamic radicals have protested the Pope’s visit to Turkey and have gone so far as to threaten violence against the Holy Father.
Referring repeatedly to the words offered and work done by previous Popes, the Holy Father spoke extensively of the importance of Turkey in the ongoing process of interreligious and intercultural dialogue.
“I love the Turks, I appreciate the natural qualities of these people who have their own place reserved in the march of civilization,” Pope Benedict said, echoing the words of Pope John XXIII who served as Papal Representative to Turkey prior to his election as Pope.
Benedict also quoted Pope John Paul II, who was the last Pope to visit Turkey in 1979, saying, “I wonder if it is not urgent, precisely today when Christians and Muslims have entered a new period of history, to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us, in order to preserve and promote together, for the benefit of all men, ‘peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.’" (Address to the Catholic Community in Ankara, 28 November 1979)
Approaching, “interreligious and intercultural dialogue with optimism and hope,” remains a necessity today, Pope Benedict said. “It cannot be reduced to an optional extra, on the contrary, it is ‘a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends,’” the Pontiff added, quoting from his own address to Muslim religious leaders in Germany last year.
“Christians and Muslims, following their respective religions, point to the truth of the sacred character and dignity of the person,” Benedict said. “This is the basis of our mutual respect and esteem, this is the basis for cooperation in the service of peace between nations and peoples, the dearest wish of all believers and all people of good will.”
“For more than forty years, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council has inspired and guided the approach taken by the Holy See and by local Churches throughout the world to relations with the followers of other religions. Following the Biblical tradition, the Council teaches that the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny: God, our Creator and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage,” he continued.
“Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham,” the Pontiff added, pulling from the Vatican II document ‘Nostra Aetate.’ “This human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek a common path as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so characteristic of the people of our time. As men and women of religion, we are challenged by the widespread longing for justice, development, solidarity, freedom, security, peace, defense of life, protection of the environment and of the resources of the earth. This is because we too, while respecting the legitimate autonomy of temporal affairs, have a specific contribution to offer in the search for proper solutions to these pressing questions.”
“Above all,” Pope Benedict said, Muslims and Christians, “can offer a credible response to the question which emerges clearly from today’s society, even if it is often brushed aside, the question about the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual and for humanity as a whole.”
“We are called to work together, so as to help society to open itself to the transcendent, giving Almighty God his rightful place. The best way forward is via authentic dialogue between Christians and Muslims, based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common. This will lead to an authentic respect for the responsible choices that each person makes, especially those pertaining to fundamental values and to personal religious convictions,” he said.
Pope Benedict then quoted a medieval Pope, “as an illustration of the fraternal respect with which Christians and Muslims can work together.” In 1076, Benedict said, Pope Gregory VII addressed words to a Muslim prince in North Africa, “who had acted with great benevolence towards the Christians under his jurisdiction. Pope Gregory spoke of the particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another ‘because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.’” It was the controversial quotation of a medieval Christian emperor during his trip to Germany this summer that caused violent protests in the Muslim world.
Pope Benedict also noted during his speech, the historical significance of Turkey pointing out that, “many of the earliest Church communities were founded here and grew to maturity, inspired by the preaching of the Apostles, particularly Saint Paul and Saint John.”
“The tradition has come down to us that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, lived at Ephesus, in the home of the Apostle Saint John.” As such, the Pope said, “your country is very dear to Christians.”
“This noble land has also seen a remarkable flowering of Islamic civilization in the most diverse fields, including its literature and art, as well as its institutions,” he added.
Prior to concluding his remarks, Pope Benedict also addressed the importance of freedom of religion. In recent years incidents of attacks on Christians have increased in Turkey, calling into question the freedom of worship for non-Muslims. “Freedom of religion,” the Pope said, “institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society, in an attitude of authentic service, especially towards the most vulnerable and the poor.”
The Holy Father finished his remarks with a prayer of praise to, “the Almighty and merciful God for this happy occasion that brings us together in his name.”
“I pray,” the Pope said of his visit, “that it may be a sign of our joint commitment to dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and an encouragement to persevere along that path, in respect and friendship. May we come to know one another better, strengthening the bonds of affection between us in our common wish to live together in harmony, peace and mutual trust. As believers, we draw from our prayer the strength that is needed to overcome all traces of prejudice and to bear joint witness to our firm faith in God. May his blessing be ever upon us!”