Benedict offers friendship to Turkish Muslims

By  Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
  • November 30, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with Ali Bardakoglu, the head of Turkey's religious affairs directorateANKARA, Turkey - Acknowledging that his four-day trip to Turkey would be largely symbolic, Pope Benedict XVI opened his visit by paying respect to the Turkish state and extending a hand of friendship to its predominantly Muslim population.

On the plane from Rome Nov. 28, Pope Benedict told reporters, "We must not exaggerate; one cannot expect great results in just three days. The value (of the trip) I would say is symbolic, the fruit of the encounters themselves, of encounters in friendship and respect."

The Pope's first formal speech in Turkey came in an address at the government's religious affairs directorate, which controls Turkey's mosques and Muslim schools.

Before giving their speeches, Pope Benedict and Ali Bardakoglu, the office's director, met for about half an hour with members of the papal entourage and Turkish Muslim officials, including the grand muftis of Ankara and Istanbul.

In the wake of continuing anger among some Muslims over the Pope's use of a quotation criticizing Islam in September, Pope Benedict used his speech at the directorate to pay his respects to the positive values promoted by Islam and to affirm the Catholic Church's commitment to Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Bardakoglu also stressed the importance of dialogue and respect, but took to task those Christians who, under what he described as the effects of "Islamophobia," believe that Islam is a violent faith spread throughout history by the sword. Islam, he said, is a religion of peace, and it condemns terrorism and any taking of an innocent life.

The building where he and the Pope met had been the scene of a small anti-papal protest hours before the Pope's arrival. Turkish police and military were on hand to ensure nothing interrupted the Pope's visit.

Intercultural and interreligious dialogue, the Pope said, "cannot be reduced to an optional extra," but is an obligation of religious leaders.

Pope Benedict, offering a basic introduction to the Second Vatican Council's teaching on relations with the world's great religious traditions, pointed out that both Christians and Muslims believe in "the truth of the sacred character and dignity of the human person."

Both faiths profess belief in one God, and teach their followers that all human beings were created by God and that being at home with God is the goal of each person's earthly pilgrimage.

"This human and spiritual unity in our origins and 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," he said.

"The best way forward," he told the Muslim leaders, "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."

Bardakoglu echoed the main themes of Pope Benedict's speech, especially the assertion that when followed faithfully religions are "the source of peace and well-being." But too often, he said, people give greater importance to belonging to a specific religion than to recognizing that all people are "the children of Adam."

Bardakoglu said he, the Pope and other religious leaders have an obligation to guide members of their communities in preserving their own traditions while recognizing that "all such religious, ethnic and cultural differences are the revelation of divine love, mercy and wisdom."

Bardakoglu hailed the Pope's visit as "a positive step" toward reconciliation and toward the building of "mutual respect, justice and equality."

In the four-day visit, the Pope also met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the airport, where he told Erdogan the Vatican welcomes Turkey joining the European Union, something that two years ago, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said he was not in favour of because he said its Islamic values were not compatible with a Christian continent.

The Pope's official welcome took place at the presidential palace, where the pontiff was greeted by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

The Pope was to meet Nov. 29 and 30 with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeu in Istanbul, Catholic bishops and leaders of other religious minorities.

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