The Meaning Behind the Pope's Trip

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Papal trips are often as much about what is not said and done as the words and gestures actually delivered by the Roman visitor and his local hosts. As Pope Benedict XVI's four-day trip to Turkey drew to a close Friday, here is an initial tally of what did and didn't happen on this most delicate visit:


Words: The Pope has had only nice things to say in Turkey about a religion that he'd bluntly questioned in September for being susceptible to violence. Benedict spoke repeatedly of friendship, respect and reconciliation, citing the common roots of the two religions in their ancestry in Abraham. Rather than again propose the new approach to relations between the two faiths he'd launched in his Regensburg speech, he quoted his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who said on his own trip to Turkey in 1979 that Christians and Muslims must "recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us." The most confrontational and politically charged word in fact came from Turkey's head of religious affairs Ali Bardakoglu who, in a speech during his meeting with Benedict in Ankara, warned against "Islamophobia." The Pope did not respond to this veiled swipe, and offered nothing of his own approaching the frank and sincere dialogue between the West and Islam that he'd called for.

Gestures: The late addition to Benedict's itinerary — a visit to Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque — will go down as the defining moment of this visit. His host on Thursday, the head cleric of Istanbul Mustafa Cagrici, had been one of 38 world Muslim leaders to sign a letter in response to Benedict's speech in September. Offering a tour of the mosque and explaining step-by-step what happens when Muslims come to pray, Cagrici continued his respectful lesson to the professor Pontiff on what he sees as the true, moderate nature of Islam. The two later gathered in a "moment of serenity," that may be as close to a genuine joint prayer as the traditionalist Pope has ever done with a non-Christian. The two leaders closed the visit by exchanging art works of doves, the symbol for peace in both faiths. Clearly moved, the Pope said he "will never forget" the visit. Hopefully, millions of others — Muslims and Christians alike — will remember it too.

Tally: Benedict may have had no choice but to play nice, but he is still searching for his voice on Islam. Perhaps by taking off his papal slippers and stepping into a mosque, he has begun to find his footing.


Words: Benedict spoke out strongly — and repeatedly — for religious freedom throughout the trip. The explicit softness in his approach to Islam allowed him to make an implicit plea for allowing religious minorities in Muslim countries — and everywhere — to freely practice their religion. On his first day, the Pope told diplomats in Ankara that religions must "not seek to exercise direct political power." On Thursday, he and Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of the tiny Orthodox community in Turkey, delivered a joint statement that insisted that religious "minorities must be protected, with their cultural traditions and the distinguishing features of their religion."

Gestures: The gradual reversal over the past week of Benedict's original opposition (as a Cardinal in 2004) to Turkey's eventual entry into the European Union — alluded to both by Vatican officials and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — was symbolically sealed like a gift on Thursday with the Pope's joint declaration with the Orthodox Patriarch that referred "positively" to European Union expansion. Notably the two Christian leaders cited the singular priority of religious freedom for any joining E.U. members.

Tally: Benedict is intent on making freedom of religion a hallmark issue of his papacy. While he sees threats to this liberty in China and in an increasingly secularized Europe, it may also end up being a pointed — if somewhat safer — way of confronting fundamental problems he sees in Islam.


Words: "Scandal" is a strong word in any language, and that's how Benedict said he sees the millennial split between Catholics and Orthodox. And he pledged that "the Catholic Church is ready to do everything possible" to move closer to the world's quarter-million Orthodox believers. Patriarch Bartholomew I echoed the good will, citing "the unwavering journey toward the restoration of full communion among our churches." He even called the Pope "our brother, and bishop of the elder Rome." Their joint declaration touched on two of Benedict's favorite themes: secularization and the Christian roots of Europe. "The process of secularization has weakened" Christian traditions, the statement read. "In the face of this reality, we are called, together with all Christian communities, to renew Europe's awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality." Still nothing new was said by either man about the main source of the East-West schism, the primacy of the Pope. Nice words only go far.

Gestures: Benedict's participation at the Orthodox liturgy on Thursday at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople, was yet another sign of how little actually stands between the Churches' spiritual unification. Afterwards, the Pope and the Patriarch appeared on a balcony overlooking a courtyard and joined hands and raised them, with the more gregarious Bartholomew triumphantly pumping the interlocked hands toward the worshipers below. The crowd of mostly Orthodox applauded in yet another sign of the diffused desire for unity.

Tally: Although Benedict clearly wants a closer communion with the Orthodox as a historical trophy for his reign, he is still only at the starting line.


The Pope came to Turkey with a lot of work to do and words to say on the thorny field of inter-faith affairs. He leaves that way too.