[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
One of the crucial steps in Pope Benedict XVI’s Turkey visit was his meeting with Dr. Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs of Turkey. This institution, a bit like the Church of England, is the state-sponsored official religious body in Turkey. And its head is the supreme Muslim religious authority for the nation.
Dr. Bardakoglu, who is known to be a liberal and progressive theologian, had also been one of the first critics of the pontiff’s Regensburg speech, in which he implied that Islam was a religion of the sword. Dr. Bardakoglu had indeed criticized the pope quite straightforwardly, along with his condemnation of the violence that some Muslims had unleashed after the pontiff’s controversial speech.
In a Tuesday press conference held jointly by Dr. Bardakoglu and the pope at the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Muslim scholar repeated some of his criticisms. He did not directly refer to the “Regensburg moment” and used very careful and kind language, but he did not refrain from directly answering the claim that Islam promoted violence and did not value human reason. Such claims correspond to “Islamophobia,” he said, which aligns Islam and terrorism and which is indeed a slander “that does not correspond to any historical or scholarly fact, and which is not reconcilable with notions of justice and fairness.” This phobia only strengthens “those who use Islam for their misdeeds,” he added, “whereas Muslims are opposed to all kinds of terrorism and violence against innocents.”
Dr. Bardakoglu also gave messages of dialogue and reconciliation. Along with Islam, he praised other “divine religions, which all promote peace.” He also pointed to the common beliefs and values of these faiths. “As the children of Adam,” he said, “we Muslims see it as imperative to respect and preserve the cultural and historical legacy of other religions. We believe the religious, ethnic and cultural diversity on earth is the manifestation of divine love.”
Pope Benedict XVI spoke after his Muslim host. He did not apologize for his Regensburg speech but displayed a de facto retreat from that position. He announced, “Islam is a religion of peace, and it is informed by reason and knowledge.” He also praised “the creativity of Turks and their religious history.” He repeated the words of Pope John XXIII — who lived in Turkey and was “a friend of Turks” — by saying, “I love the Turks; the Lord has sent me to them.”
The pope also raised the possibility that Christians and Muslims could work together in the world’s troubled regions like Africa. Dr. Bardakoglu agreed, emphasizing “the Middle East.”
Actually the two men of God expressed respect for each other’s faith throughout the meeting. While Bardakoglu emphasized Islam’s reverence for “previous prophets,” including Jesus, the pope stressed that both faiths are monotheistic. At the end, Dr. Bardakoglu gave the pope a present: a decorated vase bearing the Koranic verse, “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.”
Overall, the meeting was very positive, according to the Turkish media. The mainstream (and secular) Hürriyet argued that “the pope spoke as if he were apologizing.” According to conservative Zaman, “The pope gave messages of peace” and Dr. Bardakoglu, while criticizing the misunderstanding of Islam, welcomed the pope.
Dr. Bardakoglu’s welcome was in line with that of the government that appointed him four years ago. The fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeted the pontiff at the door of his plane was an unusual gesture for Turkish diplomacy and was very much appreciated by the holy guest. The leader of the staunchly secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Deniz Baykal, was opposed to the trip, though, in a way that displayed the complexities of Turkish politics. “This trip by the pope to Turkey looks like that of the Hamas leaders,” Mr. Baykal asserted. “This is a deliberate provocation.”