When Pope Benedict XVI visited Turkey in November 2006, the visit was overshadowed by his Regensburg address where he had defended a "reason-based' and peaceful Christianity' against an allegedly irrational and violent Islam. The Pope claimed that the absence of reason and presence of violence in Islam, as formulated by a medieval Christian polemicist, has shaped the Muslim experience in history. He then concluded that this experience urges Christians to treat Islam as a "culture" rather than as a religion.
In 2007, a group of prominent Muslim scholars and religious leaders wrote an open letter to the Pope about his Regensburg speech, responding to his claims and hoping for a response. The response never came but the letter developed into one of the most important Muslim-Christian initiatives of the century, culminating in a major text of interfaith relations called "A Common Word."
Pope Francis, Benedict XVI's successor, comes to Turkey with a similar agenda of religious tolerance and peace but with a very different tone and attitude. The difference is reflected in the personalities of the two Pontifexes: While Benedict was a theologian before all else, Francis comes off as a man of action and humility. He has not caused any theological quarrels with Muslims or other faith traditions. He comes with a message of peace and good will through action.
Pope Francis's "The Joy of the Gospel," published last year, expresses clearly his interest in a deeper understanding of Islam and establishing a different sort of relationship with the Muslim world. The papal statement takes an unequivocal position against lumping Islam together with extremism and violence. It states that "faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence."
As James Ball of Saint Mary's University in San Antonio notes, the reference to "authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran" goes beyond diplomatic nicety.
It underlines a genuine desire for understanding as well as a willingness to reach it. This could open new doors of communication between the Christians and Muslims of the world today. In their turn, Muslims should take up this call and strive for a deeper understanding of the Christian tradition.
Pope Francis is the fourth Pope to visit Turkey. Turkey is the second and largest Muslim country he is visiting after Jordan and Palestine.
In addition to reaching out to Muslims, an important part of his visit is the meeting with the Greek Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians. Here Pope Francis continues the efforts of the Catholic Church to mend relations with the Greek Orthodox Christians since the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic-Orthodox schism goes back to 1054 when Christianity, due to a number of theological, ecclesiastical and political disputes, was divided into Eastern Greek and Western Latin churches. All the Popes visiting Turkey have held meetings with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul.
As the first non-European Pope in the 1,200 years of the history of the Vatican, Pope Francis has strong messages to Europe as well. In his address to the European Parliament on Nov. 25, the Pope described Europe as "elderly and haggard," criticized the growing secularism and materialism in the old continent and warned against "individualistic narcissism."
He noted that Europe is seen with "aloofness, mistrust and suspicion" by the non-Western world. He further talked about "a general impression of weariness and ageing, of a Europe that is no longer fertile and vibrant … The great ideas that once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions." Interestingly enough, this critical assessment is similar to what the German philosopher Husserl had to say about "Europe's weariness" about a century ago, which I had discussed in Daily Sabah here.
It is generally held that Muslims and Christians share similar problems and grievances and can fight against discrimination, intolerance, extremism and violence together. Muslim and Christian religious leaders should work together to protect the innocent and help the needy. Currently, Turkey hosts many Syrian and Iraqi Christians as refugees.
Muslims face a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is extremism and violence committed in the name of their religion. On the other hand, there is the growing threat of Islamophobia which is justified in the name of protecting the "Christian West" and freedom of expression. Muslims and Christians have a common interest in fighting against these evils together.
In addition to regional issues, President Erdoğan and Pope Francis discussed the Christian communities in Turkey. Under Erdoğan, the situation of Christians in Turkey has considerably improved over the last 10 years. The confiscated Christian properties have been returned to their owners and Christian religious classes have been allowed in schools. Religious services have been held at the Sumela Monastery in Trabzon and the Akhdamar Church in Van. No doubt, there is more work to do.
In his press statement, President Erdoğan praised the pope for his "efforts to spread world peace, tolerance, peace and co-existence." While engaging in a respectful and healthy theological debate, Muslims and Christians should take up this call for greater cooperation on issues of justice, peace, poverty-eradication, tolerance and mutual respect.