Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations


The Pope Takes a Dive
by Andrew Walsh

Few jobs often involve a steep learning curve, as Pope Benedict XVI learned last fall when he discovered that the sort of blunt talk he specialized in as a cardinal could cause big headaches coming from the lips of the Vicar of Christ.

In a September lecture given at the University of Regensburg, Benedict quoted a 15th-century Byzantine emperor’s attack on Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

This statement, to many, came as the capstone of a series of progressively tougher remarks about the failure of Muslim leaders to condemn terrorism and complaints about restrictions on Christian practice in Muslim countries.

But the pope was apparently surprised by the result, laconically described by the Financial Times as “enraged Muslims across the world.”

Among the most visibly enraged were Muslims in 99-percent Muslim Turkey. That presented a particular problem for the pope because he was scheduled to make a four-day formal visit to that nation at the end of November.

The planned story line for the trip had to do with focusing world attention on the hard lot of Turkey’s small Christian population; urging the Turkish government to ease its restrictive regulations; and advancing ecumenical relations with Eastern Orthodoxy by way of discussions with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the senior Orthodox Christian prelate in the world.

But because of what happened in September, the story line turned out to be: Benedict in the lion’s den.

The advance pieces in the newspapers featured headlines like Newsday’s “Pontiff’s Journey a Trip Into Turmoil” and the Financial Times’ “Turkish politicians head out of town to avoid Pope’s visit.” CNN’s standing logo for the trip was: “When Faiths Collide.”

The weekend before the visit, 25,000 angry Islamists filled the streets of Istanbul, “brandishing placards, which read ‘Pope don’t test our patience’ and chanting Allahu Akbar,” reported Amberin Zaman and Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times on November 27.

Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe found posters at the same rally depicting “a pig with the face of Pope Benedict XVI plastered to its head and a cross painted on its pink belly.” The Turkish government, she reported, had suppressed posters with the slogan “Ignorant and Sly Pope, Don’t Come.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim, took to Italian television to say “We have never allowed ourselves to insult the prophets of other religions. Our faith obliges us to show respect. Therefore, it is our right to expect the same treatment of other religions.”

Erdogan’s particular version of respect included a plan to fly out of Ankara’s airport for a NATO meeting in Latvia just a few minutes before the pope’s planned arrival.

“Benedict now finds himself in an unfamiliar position as he embarks on the most important mission of his papacy,” David Van Biema wrote in Time’s November 27 cover story. “Having thrust himself to the center of the global debate and earned the vilification of the Muslim street, he must weigh hard options. Does he seize his new platform, insisting that another great faith has potentially deadly flaws and daring to discuss them, while exhorting Western audiences to be morally armed? Or does he back away from further confrontation in the hope of tamping down the rage his words have already provoked?”

Just to make life more difficult for Benedict, the European Union went out of its way to announce that it was putting Turkey’s application for membership on hold because of a dispute between perennial rivals Greece and Turkey. As a cardinal, the pope had also spoken out against Turkish membership.

So John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter’s crack Vatican correspondent, hardly seemed to be understating the case on ABC’s “Nightline” November 28 when he said of the pope, “Almost everywhere he puts his foot down on this trip there are potential landmines waiting to go off.”

Yet for those with eyes to see, signs emerged in the week before the visit that Benedict would not be taking a hard line in Turkey. The Vatican announced, for example, that he was adding a visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque to the agenda. It was the Christian Science Monitor’s Yigal Schleifer who put together the pieces on November 28, predicting a charm offensive and citing Benedict’s pre-trip statements in Rome.

“I want to send a cordial greeting to the dear Turkish people, rich in history and culture,” the pope said in his weekly Sunday address. “To this people and their leaders I express feelings of esteem and sincere friendship.” Schliefer noted that “Vatican officials have also recently said the papacy does not oppose Turkey’s joining the EU, though as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope did not support it.”

The Monitor went on to note that the Turkish prime minister had belatedly decided to stay at the airport for a while to meet the pope and that the Turkish religious officials who had most bitterly criticized Benedict in September were softening their line.

Ali Bardakoglu, the head of a government agency that oversees Turkey’s mosques and imams, had said in September that Benedict nursed “hatred in his heart for Islam.” But Schleifer spotted a new quote from Bardakoglu in the German magazine, Der Spiegel. “Whenever a religious leader visits other countries, it means that religious leader is ready to engage in dialogue,” he said. “That’s important. If we want to get a grip on the world’s problems, we have to speak to each other.”

Turkey’s leadership was also putting out the word. “Protesting the pope’s visit does Turkey no good, and Muslims no good,” columnist Ali Sirmen wrote in the secular Istanbul newspaper Cumhurriyet—which is “close to the army,” the Irish Times reported November 30.

And so it turned out to be. As soon as he got off the airplane in Ankara on November 29, Benedict told Prime Minister Erdogan he supported Turkey’s application for EU membership. He then went reverently to the tomb of Kemal Ataturk, founder of Turkey’s secular republic. He listened respectfully when Bardakoglu made a tough speech about Islamophobia. Next day, he was on the cover of every Turkish newspaper waving the red and white Turkish flag.

Agence France Presse reported that Posta, the biggest selling Turkish daily, carried the November 30 heading: “The pope wins Turkey’s heart.” Hurriyet’s headline read: “I love the Turks.”

Pre-visit protesters had been hyperventilating over the possibility that Benedict would make Christian gestures—crossing himself, or, perhaps even dropping to his knees in prayer, as Pope Paul VI did in 1967—on a visit to Hagia Sophia, the Christian cathedral that had been turned into a mosque by Muslim conquerors in 1453. But Benedict restrained himself.

The pope even scored an unexpected iconic moment, standing shoeless in the Blue Mosque, facing Mecca, and joining Istanbul’s grand mufti in a moment of silent prayer.

Western journalists, too, agreed that the Pope’s trip was stunningly successful in easing tensions. The headlines captured the general sentiment: “Pope, Defying Expectations, Ends Turkey Trip on a High Note,” offered the Religion News Service. “Papal visit to Istanbul mosque caps campaign to overcome Islamic anger,” noted the Associated Press.

“Pope Benedict XVI was greeted in Turkey with a lecture on how the Christian West scorns Islam. He left with Istanbul’s chief Islamic cleric speaking lyrically of better days ahead between the faiths,” AP’s Brian Murphy wrote. “Few predicted how boldly and with such apparent success the pontiff would seek to remake his battered image in the Muslim world during four days of speeches, sermons, and symbolism that included an instantly famous moment of silent prayer in a mosque while facing Mecca.”

“The Pope finds successful visits move in mysterious ways,” concluded the Financial Times.

The visit didn’t do a great deal to advance its original agenda. To be sure, Benedict visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his headquarters, as well as Istanbul’s Armenian Orthodox Patriarch, and the city’s small Catholic cathedral. And he and Bartholomew signed an agreement to step up ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.

But there was no sign of progress in persuading the Turkish government to relent on policies that seem designed to slowly strangle the 1,500-year-old Patriarchate of Constantinople: refusing to recognize ownership rights to churches, schools, and cemeteries, stripping it of property, and forbidding it to operate its seminary independently.

A handful of American reporters did do stories about the plight of the Greek and Armenian minorities in Istanbul—notably the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Newsday. On the whole, however, the American news media offered far less insight into the condition of the Orthodox community and its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church than did British, Irish, or Canadian reporters.

That feeble quality was exemplified in a National Public Radio “Morning Edition” report that ran on November 30. When host John Ydstie asked reporter Ivan Watson about the Orthodox service attended by the pope and what it meant for the two churches, Watson responded, “Well, we had these bearded Greek Orthodox priests also dressed in very elaborate vestments. They were golden embroidered…chanting their prayers and hymns in Greek.”

American journalism did better at capturing one interesting dimension of the story: the fact that many of the pope’s theological supporters seemed to be spoiling for a confrontation.

In Time’s November 27 issue, David Van Biema noted that Benedict was “a far more compelling and complex character” in many eyes precisely because he had managed to “reanimate the clash-of-civilizations discussion by focusing scrutiny on the core question of whether Islam, as a religion, sanctions violence.” Van Biema then quoted Helen Hull Hitchcock of St. Louis, the head of the “conservative Catholic organization Women for Faith and Family: ‘He has said what needed to be said.’”

In a column entitled “What the Pope Gets Right” that appeared in the same issue, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus argued that “by decrying the use of violence in the name of God, Benedict is challenging Muslims to confront hard truths.” Benedict, Neuhaus wrote approvingly, “has not retreated from his challenge of Islam. Moreover, under his leadership, the Vatican has taken a much stronger line on insisting on ‘reciprocity’ in relations with Islam. Mosques proliferate throughout cities in the West, while any expression of non-Islamic religion is strictly forbidden in many Muslim countries.”

Similarly, in the December 4 issue of Newsweek—which appeared on newsstands before the visit—Catholic scholar George Weigel forcefully outlined the Turkish government’s “violations of basic human rights” in the restrictions it imposes on Christians and especially the Orthodox. In his peroration, Weigel asked, “Might Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to Turkey focus the world’s attention on the stranglehold the Turkish state attempts to exercise on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his people, such that the stranglehold begins to ease?”

Yet, as Benedict was leaving, the Turkish government reasserted its refusal to acknowledge that the patriarch was anything other than a local Turkish religious leader. And the Turkish republic’s president announced he was suppressing aspects of a new law designed to assuage human rights activists and that would have acknowledged the validity of some of the patriarchate’s complaints about expropriation of property. But few American journalists commented on that.

Nor did many of the formerly outspoken conservative Catholics. It fell to the New York Times’ Ian Fisher to ask the quite reasonable question December 3: “Has the pope gone wobbly?” in a story headlined: “The Pope Without His Sting.”

“Supporters have long depended on Benedict XVI for brave talk, even and maybe especially if it was unpleasant to hear,” Fisher wrote. “With his big brain and the heft of the Roman Catholic tradition behind him Benedict has stood for a remarkably clear idea: there is truth, and we won’t retreat from it.”

Fisher found some worried friends of Benedict. “He has signaled to Islam that there are concessions he can make, and reactions other than outrage in the face of intimidation and violence,” he quoted one blogger. “It’s a shame, we needed Benedict and his withdrawal from the debate is a considerable loss.”

Philip Lawler, editor of the Catholic World News website, grimaced but found a way to get behind Benedict’s trip to Turkey. Acknowledging some unhappiness among Benedict’s conservative supporters about the cave-in on EU membership and the visit to the mosque, Lawler insisted that Benedict “continued to raise in Turkey the same issues he always has: concern for religious freedom, respect for religious minorities, denunciation of violence in the name of God.

“I haven’t seen any backtracking since Regensburg,” Lawler told Fisher. “I’ve seen questions posed in a different manner. And I’ve seen a concern that he doesn’t want to offend people by the way in which he poses the questions. But he’s still determined to have those questions posed.”




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