Monday, November 27, 2006

The pope and Islam - A chance to get friendlier

The pope prepares for a controversial trip to Turkey

IT HAS been called the most hazardous journey undertaken by a Roman pontiff in modern times. Some of the hazards of this week’s papal visit to Turkey may be unavoidable, others may have been of his own making. The trip by Pope Benedict XVI, which begins on Tuesday November 28th, was first conceived as an exercise in intra-Christian diplomacy: a visit to the Patriarch Bartholomew I, the most senior bishop of the worldwide Orthodox church, who resides in Istanbul.

It was largely at the insistence of the government in Ankara that the purpose of the journey was broadened into an opportunity for the pontiff to test and possibly re-examine his hitherto sceptical view of Turkey. But the omens in recent months have not been benign. The pope upset two large sections of Turkish society with a lecture on September 12th in which he quoted (without endorsing) a Byzantine emperor who suggested that Islam had engendered nothing but violence. Devout Muslims in Turkey (and around the world) were offended by the insult to their faith. Secular-nationalist Turks bristled at the mention of a Byzantine monarch. No wonder that some leading members of Turkey’s mildly Islamist government have seemed at pains to find excuses not to meet the pontiff, although the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now says that he will do so.

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