The Pope Tones Down His Act in Turkey

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Pope Benedict XVI waves upon his arrival at the mausoleum of the founder of the secular Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, November 28, 2006.

Joseph Ratzinger has never been known for his flexibility. As a university theologian and the Vatican's top doctrinal watchdog, the German prelate consistently stuck to his intellectual guns, sometimes stepping on sensibilities in the process. That unbendable belief in his own truth may have indeed gotten the now Pope Benedict XVI into trouble with his provocative September speech about faith and violence that sparked anger throughout the Muslim world. But the papacy often requires old men to learn new tricks. And so on Tuesday, as he set off on the most delicate mission of his life, the 79-year-old Pontiff was showing a very different side, one that reflects a growing awareness of his new role.

In a rapid-fire, on-board encounter with reporters just before take-off, the Pope said his four-day trip to Ankara, Ephesus and Istanbul was aimed at "dialogue, brotherhood and reconciliation." He then heaped praise on Turkey, which he called a "bridge between cultures," and the Turks, whom he described as an open and peace-loving people. He also seemed to reverse his stance on Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Just two years ago, while Cardinal, he said the country's culture and history left it "in permanent contrast to Europe." On board his Alitalia flight, instead, he was pointing out that modern Turkey was founded on secular ideas of the French Constitution. Later in the day, Vatican officials in fact confirmed that the Holy See would favor Turkey's bid to eventually join the E.U. if it met all the necessary conditions.

Though Tuesday's tone will no doubt disappoint some of his ardent conservative fans, Benedict was never going to use his first visit to a predominantly Muslim country as a rhetorical Act II to the Regensburg speech. There, in the confines of a German university, he questioned Islam's compatibility with reason, he cited the Koran's references to jihad, and he quoted a Byzantine emperor's rude remarks about Muhammed. In Turkey, if nothing else, Benedict followed the old rule that visiting world leaders don't wag their finger at their host country.

Still, Benedict's two prepared remarks in the Turkish capital — at first blush, at least — seemed so careful as to make one wonder if the famous hard-liner was going soft. After years of quietly, and then not-so-quietly, differentiating his approach to interfaith relations from Pope John Paul II's, the German Pope was sounding a lot like his predecessor. During Benedict's speech alongside Turkey's head of religious affairs Ali Bardakoglu, the Pope cited "mutual respect and esteem," "human and spiritual unity" and the common heritage of Islam and Christianity as ancestors of Abraham. In marked contrast to the nasty historical quote he'd cited in Regensburg, the Pope referred to a warm 11th century meeting of Pope Gregory VII and a Muslim prince. Still smarting from Regensburg, Bardakoglu told the Pope: "The so-called conviction that the sword is used to expand Islam in the world and growing Islamophobia hurts all Muslims."

Later, in a speech to foreign diplomats in the Turkish capital, Benedict was beginning to sound not only like his predecessor — but like himself. In the John Paul vein, he began a long reflection on war and violence by saying that "true peace needs justice, to correct the economic imbalances and political disturbances which always give rise to tension and threaten every society." This "root-cause" exploration of conflict is much different than Regensburg's search at the heart of religion for the source of violence. It is also a very different tone than his meeting with German Muslims last year in Cologne, where he implored them to help weed out terrorists from their communities — without any mention of the difficulties facing those same immigrant communities.

Still, Benedict ultimately made clear that he will be tweaking, rather than changing, his fundamental message on inter-faith dialogue. In the speech to diplomats, he called out rather pointedly for religious freedom — using the secular Muslim state of Turkey as an example. The following passage may well wind up being the strongest of the entire voyage: "The fact that the majority of the population of this country is Muslim is a significant element in the life of society, which the State cannot fail to take into account, yet the Turkish Constitution recognizes every citizen's right to freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. The civil authorities of every democratic country are duty bound to guarantee the effective freedom of all believers and to permit them to organize freely the life of their religious communities," the Pope said, reading his remarks in English and coughing occasionally at the end of a long day of encounters. He continued: "Religious liberty is a fundamental expression of human liberty and that the active presence of religion in society is a source of progress and enrichment for all. This assumes, of course, that religions do not seek to exercise direct political power, as that is not their province, and it also assumes that they utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion."

So here, tucked inside a day otherwise focused on reconciliation, may be the first act in the "post-POST-Regensburg" phase of Benedict's papal diplomacy. How clearly can he draw the lines on the question of religious freedom? When will the "frank" public dialogue with Islam recommence? Can he lay out a new vision for a modern secular state — in both the Western and Muslim worlds — that gives due space to faith? And, perhaps just as importantly, can he keep the world's attention? The answers will depend on whether Benedict can strike the right balance between his newfound flexibility and an ancient, iron-clad faith.