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Benedict XVI's Visit to Turkey: the Context

Interview With Father Martin Kmetec

ISKENDERUN, Turkey, NOV. 25, 2006 (Zenit) - Conventual Franciscan Friar Martin Kmetec describes Benedict XVI's forthcoming visit to Turkey as a "courageous gesture."

In this interview with us, Father Kmetec, a Slovenian missionary in Turkey, paints a picture of the nation the Pope will visit next week and explains that Catholics there are preparing for this event with hope.

Q: The Pope will visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in a nation in which the great majority of inhabitants is Muslim with a very small percentage of Catholics. Is an invitation to dialogue expected?

Father Kmetec: Of course, the contents of the Pope's addresses are not yet known; we will know them when he delivers them here.

However, we can be sure -- the Pope himself has repeated it several times -- that the invitation to dialogue will be the dominant note of his conversations and addresses. Above all, the intensification of dialogue with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which in a certain sense will be of interest not only to the Orthodox Church in Turkey but to the whole of Orthodoxy worldwide.

It can be foreseen that at the meetings with state authorities, interreligious and intercultural dialogue [and] the topic of human rights and freedom of conscience will be at the center of the conversations.

The same topic of dialogue will also be addressed at the meeting with Muslim religious authorities. However, there are prejudices that, in my opinion, will make this discussion difficult.

I remember that, when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope, the media denigrated his image in a deplorable manner, especially the press of the two extremist currents: the nationalist and the Islamist.

Harping on the question of the Second World War, they accused him of being a former Nazi for having been part of the Nazi youth. However, more than anything else, the real reason for their aversion to him was unleashed following his statement [as cardinal] on the inopportuneness of Turkey's adherence to the European Union.

The fact that a public person like the Pope expressed his own opinion in opposition to Turkey's petition is an event that is not forgotten or forgiven. Moreover, the Regensburg episode has further inflamed the spirits opposed to the Pope's coming to Turkey.

The newspapers have made it known that the prime minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, will not be in the country during the Pope's visit. Also absent will be Mehmet Aydin, in charge of the state's religious affairs. Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister, will not be there either.

These, perhaps, might be the signs to better understand the climate in which this visit will take place, though Benedict XVI in fact tries to minimize their importance.

Does President Tayyip Erdogan not want to compromise himself with his electors? Does this also express his line in regard to Christianity? Still alive is the memory of the assassination of Judge Yucel Ozbilgin [last May], killed by a bullet fired by a fanatic in the courtroom of the state's Constitutional Court during the hearing. The motivation for the killer's gesture: "The tribunal's decision on the question of the Muslim veil."

Then, Tayyip Erdogan did not attend the judge's funeral, during which thousands of people gave vent to their anger over the brutal crime.

Will we witness a similar reaction and political line? Professor Ali Bardakoglu said that the State Executive for Religious Affairs will address religious, not political, aspects with the Pope, because we recognize him, he said, as religious head, though this meeting will not be able to erase the perplexity over negative political attitudes of the past.

Moreover, one cannot ignore the ill-temper of a not indifferent band of the population which recently organized acts of protests in Istanbul and Ankara, the recent diversion of the Turkish Airlines plan, the exchange of shots outside the Italian Consulate in Istanbul and other similar sporadic incidents that, in my opinion, give an indirect message to the Pope's visit: namely, that he will not be welcome in Turkey and, perhaps, make him change his mind and give up his visit.

His [the Pope's] is a courageous sign, and we pray that he will be able to give this country and these people the message of the humility and the great sense of humanity of Christ to all people of good will.

Q: What is the Catholic reality in Turkey? How are Catholics preparing for this visit and what do they expect from the Pope?

Father Kmetec: Catholics in Turkey, those who are established, are close to 30,000. They are preparing spiritually for this visit with prayer.

An attempt is made in Sunday Masses to underline that Christians urgently need a spiritual renewal of life, according to the principles of the Gospel. This must be the fruit of the Pope's visit among us.

For this occasion, Bishop Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar of Anatolia, addressed a letter to his faithful on the topic of hope, which is essential not only for the Church of Anatolia but for all Turkey's Christians.

Our communities must face daily not a few difficulties of an economic order; above all, however, they must be able to react to an inferiority complex in the face of an oppressive Muslim majority, which makes them feel oppressed and can make them think that they are the "infidels."

Q: Given the latest events, is there concern over security, or are only some isolated cases of intolerants to be feared?

Father Kmetec: I am sure that there are no problems in regard to the safety of the person of the Supreme Pontiff. The Turkish state will do everything possible so that this visit will unfold without major incidents.

One cannot exclude, however, some small demonstration or some isolated case of reaction, but certainly not in the course of the papal itinerary.

Q: Can you give us a brief description of Islam in Turkey? What type of religiosity and social life does it engage in?

Father Kmetec: As every religion, Islam is a present element that penetrates the whole Turkish society: in public places -- mosques; in people's lives -- observance of fasting; and in common prayer. Religiosity is also expressed in external signs, such as women's veils, the great feast of the end of Ramadan, and the celebration of the sacrifice.

Secularization prevails in large cities, though no one gives up the celebration of religious feasts. Instead, in rural areas and small centers, religious life enjoys greater fidelity also in the classic expressions of religious praxis.

In Turkey, Sunni Islam is dominant, comprising 75% of the population; 25% are Alawites, a branch of the Shiites.

At the official level, beginning in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [founder and first president of the modern republic of Turkey], the country became a lay state. Thus began for the country the period of progress.

"Kemalism," that is, the fundamental principles of the lay republic desired by Ataturk, is at the base of a modern state, the new Turkey.

The abolition of the caliphate, of the Muslim fraternities, or "tarikat," and the restriction of Islam, relegated to the private sphere, remained always as an open problem, which the movements and institutions of popular Islam, lived in the realm of mysticism, wished to reconquer.

In fact, after 1950, some political leaders wished to take advantage of the masses still anchored in popular Islam.

This marked the return of Islam to the political scene and was the cause of coups d'etat carried out by the military. Later it was the military men themselves who decided to give some freedom to the public expression of Islam.

Today, with the coming to power of the present AKP Party of Tayyip Erdogan, they have gained strength.

The lay movement in Turkey is opposed to Islam as a political system, but it seems to be only the army which intends to keep Turkey in the line of laicism.

The real question is if Islam will be truly disposed to giving up its concept of society and state and to recognizing the human rights of minorities, especially of the Alawites, who are not recognized as followers of a religion with its institutions and its identity.

Q: Are there areas of common work with Muslims? Do you, personally, collaborate with them?

Father Kmetec: The areas of collaboration are very restricted. As a Franciscan Community, we live in open dialogue with all the people we meet. It is a way of presence, which stems from following St. Francis, a way of bringing hope and salvation to all men.

Except for Muslim-Christian symposiums, there is no other collaboration with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is not recognized by the state as a moral institution. This prevents the possibility of cooperation even in the charitable apostolate, though Caritas, as an organization of the Vatican State, provides considerable aid in the social realm.

However, the Christian community of faithful born in Turkey are happy enough if they can live in peace with others in their daily life, in work relationships and in simple interpersonal relations.

Q: Is the Catholic Church seen as a sign of public utility?

Father Kmetec: Lay politicians, especially the intellectual, respect the Church, the Catholic faith and persons of the Church and see in the Church a positive sign of the life of the world.

But for the majority, the Catholic Church has no contribution to make and has no public utility. Certain influential currents in journalism regard us as intruders, bearers of strange ideas and of disturbance for Turkish society, intruders of whom it would be best to be liberated.

Q: What do you think will be the meaning of this visit for the Turkish nation?

Father Kmetec: In my opinion, the state apparatus as well as the politicians want to give a good image and see the Pope's visit as a unique occasion of promotion on the international scene and, in particular, they want Europe to see Turkey's openness and tolerance.

They play this visit as a card for their candidacy to the European Union. Not lacking, of course, will be those who are obstinate in their prejudices and will continue trying to present the Pope, the Church and Catholics with dark and negative colors.

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