The reaction to the Pope’s comments on Islam may jeopardize his planned visit to Turkey
Perhaps his erudite mind does not quite yet grasp how to transform his beloved scholarly explorations into effective papal politics. But two months before a scheduled trip to Turkey, his first to a predominantly Muslim country, Pope Benedict XVI raised a ruckus with a provocative lecture on the relationship between faith, reason and violence on a visit to Regensburg University, where he once taught theology. As a good professor might, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor. But this Emperor was making a furious criticism of Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Perhaps the 79-year-old Pontiff hoped his remarks at the German university would spark a pointed discussion of Christian-Muslim relations and the rise of faith-based terrorism — just in time for his Turkey trip. What they sparked instead was a virtually instantaneous firestorm of criticism from Muslim leaders around the world. And the heat was hottest in Turkey. Ali Bardakoglu, head of the Turkish government-run religious-affairs directorate, said that Benedict should “replace the grudge in his heart with moral values and respect for the other.” And that was among the tamer reactions. Another Turkish leader compared the German Pontiff to Hitler and Mussolini, calling him a “poor thing” with a “dark mentality.” Through a spokesman, the Pope said he did not mean to endorse any harsh criticism of Islam.
The trip to Ankara and Istanbul, where Benedict hopes to celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, is now a definite maybe. It’s unlikely that Benedict imagined the situation unraveling so rapidly when he sat down to hammer out his academic discourse, which argues that Islam lacks the Christian concept of a rational God and that Europe must defend its Christian identity. Still, says one Vatican insider, the Pope may very well have wanted to stir up the pot — and have it plenty warm just in time to deliver a more elaborate sermon on Islam and the West while he is visiting a nation with some 70 million Muslims. “It may be like his predecessor,” says the Vatican source, referring to John Paul II’s knack for staying relevant in world affairs. “He wants to create a positive tension. Then it becomes a political trip as well.” At this point, though, the real political feat will be getting to Turkey in the first place.