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Pope's Visit to Turkey: A Unique Opportunity?

Interview With Bishop L. Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia

ROME, SEPT. 27, 2006 (Zenit) - The apostolic vicar of Anatolia believes that Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey in November might be a unique occasion to give a clear address on relations between Islam and Christianity.

In this interview with us last Friday, Bishop Luigi Padovese, 59, an assiduous scholar of the Church in Turkey, sketched a picture of the state of that country, destination of the Pope's fifth apostolic trip abroad.

As apostolic vicar of Anatolia, he has been threatened and, four months ago, a motorcyclist tried to run over him. He now has a police escort when he goes out, which the Italian ambassador requested from the governor of Antioch.

The bishop's region of Anatolia is where an Italian missionary, Father Andrea Santoro, was slain last February.

Q: What is the situation in Turkey?

Bishop Padovese: Turkey presents a composite picture, where the presence of nationalist groups and the growing phenomenon of Islamization, triggered by an economic situation that has been degenerating, has fueled a closed attitude both in regard to Christianity as well as to Europe.

We might think that in Turkey everyone is in favor of [the country's] entry into Europe, but instead, I am beginning to see that it isn't like that.

There are Muslim groups that believe that Turkey's rapprochement to Europe might make it lose its Muslim identity. In Turkey today, to be a good Turk means to be a good Muslim. For such people, Turkey's entry into Europe might mean to be a good Turk but no longer a good Muslim.

Q: Do you think Muslims fear modernity?

Bishop Padovese: They use the instruments of modernity, but fear losing their national identity, fruit of the work of conquest of [Kemal] Ataturk [the first president of Turkey].

In my opinion, Turkish democracy, deep down, does not accept other voices: It is democratic but in unison. This is explains why, all told, minorities are hard-pressed to be accepted and recognized.

Q: And what is the situation with the Orthodox?

Bishop Padovese: The relationship with the Orthodox is quite good because we are experiencing the same problems.

There is a certain accord linked to common problems, though I must say that in regard to the Pope's visit, the Ecumenical and Armenian patriarchates have taken a stance that seems almost like a distancing -- an action justified for reasons of prudence, because in Turkey there is no inclination to subtleties and no distinction is made between Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants. Seen from outside, it looks like a desire to wash one's hands; seen from within, it is a way of shielding the community from dangers and threats.

Q: What can be said about the Catholic community in Turkey?

Bishop Padovese: The Catholic presence is very limited and concentrated in great centers: Istanbul, Smyrna, Mersin and Ankara, especially among diplomats. There are parishes here and there, but frequented by a few hundred faithful.

There is a Latin, Armenian-Catholic, Chaldean-Catholic and Syro-Catholic Christianity. They belong to the Tradition and the expressions of the different rights are kept, though in numerical terms they are few.

Q: How do you assess the Holy Father's forthcoming visit?

Bishop Padovese: The Holy Father's visit is delicate -- not problematic due to questions of an ecumenical character, because from this point of view an accord has already been reached. Moreover, there will be a joint declaration by the Bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Istanbul.

The more complex questions regard the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and what the Pontiff thinks of Turkey's eventual entry into Europe. Turkish media criticized the then Cardinal Ratzinger because, according to them he is not in favor of Turkey's entry into Europe.

Q: What do you think of the reactions to the lesson Benedict XVI gave at the University of Regensburg?

Bishop Padovese: I fear that some in Turkey might wish to organize a protest in view of the Pope's arrival. For the fundamentalists it is a very tempting occasion.

I read a statement of the person in charge of Turkish religious affairs, who specified that Turkey will receive the Pontiff but as a head of state, which means that the figure of the religious leader fades into the background.

There are those who would prefer that the Pontiff not go to Turkey; however, it is no longer an issue of opening a window to the Muslim world but a balcony, to deliver a clear address on relations between Islam and Christianity.

I am convinced that what was a problem might become an unrepeatable occasion, a unique opportunity, because all the media of the Arab countries will focus on what the Pope says. Some won't be happy, but at least they will refer to what the Holy Father affirms.

Q: In what way can the Western Christian community help the small Turkish flock?

Bishop Padovese: We are a reality without a voice. The problem, which the Pontiff also expressed on the occasion of Father Santoro's death, is that we are in Turkey without means of social communication.

Protestants have a TV channel and two or three radio stations. We have nothing. This means that we cannot take a position and are even unable to rectify anything falsely written or said against us. To make rectifications I have had to contract a lawyer full time. I have requested rectifications from two newspapers and they have done so, and another, to avoid prosecution, will meet with me to present excuses.

Q: How is dialogue with Islam progressing?

Bishop Padovese: The situation is complicated because Islam has an idea of reality that is all-encompassing and absorbing. And the absolutism that Muslims advocate does not allow for any form of dialogue or compromise.

There is a relationship with some people of the Muslim world. The greatest problem is linked to the difficulty of different levels of cultural and theological preparation. There are Islamic schools of theology, but I have the impression that they are not at the level of our own; we do not meet on the same plane.

The fact is that Islam does not allow exegesis of the Koran, while Christianity allows exegesis of sacred Scripture.

So it happens that there is no true dialogue, only mutual knowledge. A gathering of information from one side and the other, what we do and what they do, but this isn't genuine dialogue.

There is dialogue and cooperation in charitable and social works, but when it comes to theological questions, then we are very far behind.

We have organized congresses on the images of Jesus and Mary in Islam, but there were few Muslim participants -- only people of a certain cultural formation. Those imams with little theological preparation did not participate. This is one of the big problems.

There is very little theological activity in Islam, which differs according to the different schools. The difference is that we Christians have a guiding magisterium; [Muslims], instead, don't have it and it is individual theologians who decide.


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Pope, Benedict, Turkey, Anatolia, Padovese

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