Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Pope visits Turkey

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey yesterday, no doubt hoping to mend some of the unnecessary wounds arising from his recent speech (or perhaps more from the over reaction of some Muslims).

He has already met with the closest thing Turkey has to a Pope – the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Department, Dr Ali Bardakoglu. The Pope will also take a stroll through the Ayasofia Museum in Istanbul, a Greek Orthodox Cathedral which Catholic crusaders sacked some centuries ago. The Ottomans converted it into a mosque, and Turkey’s secular authorities transformed it into a museum in 1936. Any form of worship (including Islamic) is strictly forbidden. I have Muslim friends who’ve been kicked out for trying to perform the Muslim ritual prayer.

The Pope’s visit is being treated seriously by Turkey’s liberal-Islamist government. PM Recep Erdogan personally met the Pope at the airport. The Turks are keen to show their European credentials as a stepping stone to eventual EU membership. No Turkish government has been as keen to join the EU. And no Catholic Cardinal has been so opposed to the idea of a European Turkey.

Apparently the expressed views of former Cardinal Ratzinger on Turksy’s EU membership have now changed. Previously, the Cardinal held the view that Europe was inherently Christian and had no room for a Muslim-majority state. Now the Vatican’s chief spokesman says the liberal Muslim country does belong in Europe.

The Pope’s visit almost coincides with the release of a report earlier this month by a UN-sponsored High Level Group to establish an Alliance of Civilisations between the West and the Muslim world. Turkey’s PM co-chairs the group with Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The Report says that politics, not religion, is the biggest stumbling block in the way to an alliance between the two civilisations. The continued occupation of Iraq and the failure to deal with the Israel/Palestine question are fuelling resentment toward the West.

These aren’t issues a Pontiff can adequately deal with. They require political action. To his credit, John Howard showed leadership in Hanoi when he told President Bush at the recent APEC summit that more needed to be done about establishing a Palestinian state.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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