In Turkey, the Pope built bridges without backing down


What was Pope Benedict doing in Turkey, and was the trip a success?

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Media attention focused on smoothing troubled relations between Muslim leaders and the Christian West. Keep in mind that whether or not we think the West is still Christian, it is very much the Christian West in the minds of most Muslims. The Pope is understandably viewed as the voice of Christendom. He is, after all, the leader of the greater part of the more than 2 billion Christians in the world.

The encounter in Turkey, and especially in Istanbul, was filled with high historical drama. Istanbul was once Constantinople, established in the fourth century as the western capital of the Roman Empire and named for the Christian emperor Constantine. Conquered by Muslims in 1453, it was renamed Istanbul. Islam had experienced a run of successful conquests since the seventh century, until it was turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Such is the long history of Christian-Muslim relations, filled with defeats and resentments that fuel the resolve of some radical Muslims to go on the offensive with a jihad, or holy war, aimed at the West's submission to Islam.

The Pope's visit, of course, came in the aftermath of his Sept. 12 address at Regensburg University in Germany — where he raised the question of whether Muslims agree that violence has no place in advancing religion. Violence, he said, is contrary to reason, and "to act against reason is to act against the nature of God." In reaction to the suggestion that Islam may be prone to violence, thousands of Muslims violently protested in the Middle East and elsewhere, torching Christian churches and killing a Catholic nun in Somalia.

Some claimed the Pope had been unnecessarily provocative in Regensburg. Others were grateful that, at last, someone on the world stage had the courage to challenge the silence and even the complicity of Muslim leaders in connection with terrorist attacks on the West.

During his days in Turkey, all the diplomatic niceties were observed, but Benedict did not back away even 1 inch from the challenge he raised at Regensburg. On the contrary, he repeatedly asserted that religion must repudiate violence, and underscored the duty of states to protect religious freedom.

The last point is a very touchy issue in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, where Christians are less than one half of 1% of the population. Despite all the attention to Christian-Muslim relations, the chief purpose of the Pope's trip was to express solidarity with Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and the symbolic leader of the world's 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians. Confined by the Turkish government to a small area of Istanbul called the Phanar, the ecumenical patriarchate is under siege and denied the most elementary rights to own property or conduct its own ministries.

Contrary to some media reports, notably in The New York Times, the Pope did not bless Turkey's admission to the European Union. Rather, he and Bartholomew issued a joint statement that such admission must be conditioned upon respect for "the inalienable rights of the human person, especially freedom. In every step toward unification, minorities must be respected, with their cultural traditions and the distinguishing features of their religion."

So was the visit to Turkey a success? If success is measured by clarifying the challenge of radical Islam and expressing solidarity with religious minorities under Islamic rule, the answer is certainly Yes.




Neuhaus, Richard John. "In Turkey, the Pope built bridges without backing down." New York Daily News (December 3, 2006).

Reprinted with permission of New York Daily News.


Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

Copyright © 2006 New York Daily News

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