Cold Turkey – ‘No Pope here!’
Following the Regensburg address, one wonders what His Holiness may dare to say that will be sure to have absolutely no possibility of being misquoted, misrepresented, or misunderstood. And yet, maybe his very presence in Turkey is a reminder of the gulf that exists between Christendom and the Islamic world. This is, after all, the man who once warned that letting Turkey into the EU would be ‘a grave error against the tide of history’ - he has become the incarnate symbol of Western hostility towards Turkey.
This visit could hardly be at a more contentious or inopportune time, coming, as it does, as the debate is reaching a bitter climax over whether to admit such a Muslim-populated country into the European Union. Mindful of the Turkish element in the plan to assassinate Pope John Paul II, a security plan involving 12,000 policemen is being implemented in Istanbul, with strategically-placed snipers, and the thorough search of the sewers for bombs. The authorities are only too aware of the on-going attacks against Christians since Regensburg, where the Pope was deemed to have ‘insulted the Prophet’ and ‘defamed Islam’. The Jihadists are out for blood – it is, after all, the will of Allah that the Pope be beheaded, and since Allah is immutable and impassible, he cannot change his mind. The death sentence stands until the Pope dies.
His Holiness is expected to make a defence of Christian minority rights, and call for an end to Turkey’s anti-Christian discrimination laws that make it difficult for churches to own property. The treatment of Christian minorities is one of the major hurdles to EU accession, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide has recently highlighted two cases of Christians being arrested for the nebulous and all-embracing crime of ‘insulting Turkishness’. Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal both work for a Bible correspondence course, and now they stand accused of inciting hatred against Islam, insulting the Turkish army, promoting sexual promiscuity, and bribing Muslims to convert to Christianity. They deny all charges, yet it is difficult to believe that their trial will be just. Will His Holiness raise such issues, or might this simply compound Turkish public opinion which is increasingly turning anti-European? According to a recent poll, 81% of Turks now believe that the EU is not treating them ‘sincerely and fairly’, compared to 2% who say that it is.
The Pope is expected to visit Istanbul’s 6th-century Byzantine Hagia Sophia Church, which was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. It is likely to be here, the embodiment of the ‘clash of civilisations’, that the Pope’s every word, every movement, every gesture will be scrutinised to establish with what reverence His Holiness holds Islam, and what hope he may offer the people Turkey in their interminable quest to join the European Union.
Cranmer is still deciding whether this Turkish trip is the pontifical voyage from hell, or to it.