The world has watched with interest (and, perhaps, apprehension) as Pope Benedict XVI has undertaken his first excursion to a Muslim nation. The common thought has been that the Vatican had large stakes riding on the visit and that the pope had to tread carefully.
However, if one takes a step back to look at Rome's long-term goals for the future, the final analysis would reveal this visit to Turkey was a "win-win" scenario for Benedict.
On one hand, the pope has stressed a desire for "reciprocity" – that is, he wants Catholics in Islamic nations to possess the same expansive freedom to worship and spread their faith that Muslims possess in "Christian" nations. Seeing how desperately Turkey – a generally secular Muslim nation – wishes to be a part of the European Union (EU), this would be just the place to focus one's effort to achieve serious concessions on this front.
However, the presence of abject poverty and other environments that promote the growth of religious extremism in that nation make such concessions a "hard sell." One man, a 43-year-old computer salesman in Turkey, stated, "He's coming to advance the ambitions of the Christian world. I don't want him to come" (Associated Press, November 27, 2006). Comments such as this—as well as the numerous protests the pope's visit inspired—only encourage the conclusion that concessions are, at best, very unlikely.
Yet, while such a result – a refusal to achieve dramatic increases in the freedom of Christianity in the Muslim world – would seem a failure, it would also serve to provide support for a different victory for Pope Benedict: increased resistance to Turkey's bid for membership in the EU.
The Vatican wants a Catholic Europe – a fact visible to anyone with eyes to see. Pope John Paul II strongly admonished a slowly uniting Europe to return to its Catholic "roots," and his successor to the papal throne has previously had strong words in support of such an idea.
The AP article cited above reminds us that in 2004, the man now called Pope Benedict XVI firmly stated, "Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe." In fact, he even encouraged, instead, a Turkey that seeks to unite with neighboring Arab nations to form their own union (EUobserver, August 16, 2004) – exactly the outcome that many Western politicians fear would transpire should the EU reject Turkey. A very bold stance, indeed, in today's environment. But bold stances are born out of firm convictions, and this pope is firmly convicted about seeing a Catholic Europe truly come to pass.
Some commentators have noted the words of Turkey's Prime Minster, Tayyip Erdogan, who stated at the pope's arrival that Benedict had expressed to him the church's support for Turkey's entrance into the EU, as evidence of a reversal on this stance. But a careful reading of the Vatican's meticulously crafted official response to the statement, released about three hours later, gives another interpretation: The pope will be glad to do what he can to help Turkey enter the EU – if Turkey continues to make the concessions that have been demanded of it, which include increased religious freedom for the spread of the Catholic faith in that nation. Win-win.
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