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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.

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