Story behind the story in Istanbul

Constantinople5Press reports are starting to filter in on Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey for the Feast of St. Andrew. This is one of those cases in which there is a story that will be on the news and then there are other stories in the background, perhaps even buried or ignored in the mainstream coverage of the story. However, I have hopes that this will not be the case.

Why? Check out the opening of the initial report from Ian Fisher of The New York Times:

Pope Benedict XVI originally wanted to visit Turkey a year ago, for one quiet night, and Islam had nothing to do with it.

It was meant as a trip to help heal the 1,000-year rift with the world's 220 million Orthodox Christians. The pope would celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the worldwide Orthodox Church, who lives in Istanbul, then return to Rome.

But for various reasons having to do with its complex relationship with Orthodox Christianity, the Turkish government protested. No doubt the nation's leaders wish they had approved a visit then. Now, after the pope's speech two months ago that many interpreted as suggesting that Islam was prone to violence, the trip that starts Tuesday has become far more complicated.

An even earlier report in the Los Angeles Times managed to balance the same two topics. Here is a key paragraph:

The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for membership for Turkey in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a "Greek agent" seeking to reestablish Christian influence in this country.

The question, of course, is whether the tiny Christian minority in Turkey can be granted any kind of religious liberty without provoking violence among Islamists. Then again, how does Turkey hope to enter the EU if it cannot enforce the rule of law and basic human rights, such as religious liberty for minority groups?

So there is reason to hope for good journalism in a tough situation. Now we have to see if the 3,000 or so reporters making this trip into Turkey can meet the test.

Any event that even hints at Islamic relations and/or the European Union is going to grab the headlines. That's a given. But it helps to remember that the original purpose of this trip was to push for religious liberty for minority groups in the allegedly secular state of Turkey. At the same time, this pope -- as was the case with Pope John Paul II -- is trying to test the edges of ecumenical relations with the other great ancient Christian communion, Eastern Orthodoxy.

Reporters who have been following that story for a decade or two will be paying close attention to any hints Big Ben may make about his concepts of limited forms of papal authority in the East or even a return to a first-among-equals relationship with the other patriarches in the ancient churches of the East. At the very least, he may try to better define the "impaired communion" that exists between East and West.

Here is a good summary paragraph about what is at stake from Catholic scholar George Weigel, writing in Newsweek:

There is ... a link between what Benedict XVI thinks he's doing during his Turkish pilgrimage and the world's expectations of another episode in the confrontation between the West and Islam. That link involves the dramatic restrictions under which Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must operate, thanks to the obstacles put in the patriarchate's path by the Turkish government -- restrictions that raise serious questions about Turkey's ability to meet EU human-rights standards. Should the papal visit to the Phanar (sometimes referred to as the "Orthodox Vatican," much to the aggravation of the Orthodox) focus world attention on the gaps in Turkey's practice of religious freedom, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be improved -- and so, in consequence, would Turkey's chances of a closer relationship to the EU.

Phanar2A key moment will occur when the pope passes the famous locked front gate of the Phanar (pictured), which -- as I noted in 2004 -- was

... (Welded) shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: "We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. ... Patriarch you will perish!"

What will Benedict XVI do at this door? Will he pray there? Leave flowers? Choose that site as a backdrop for his remarks on religious liberty? Stay tuned.

Anyone interested in the original purpose of this papal journey should read Weigel's essay. Also, for those interested in the picky details, the Vatican has already posted some of the details on the ecumenical services.

UPDATE: I did not know, when I wrote this, that Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher had published a column in The Dallas Morning News today based on the same theme as this post. By all means, read it all. Here's a key passage:

Benedict has a clearer eye about Islam than his predecessor, who rarely missed an opportunity to abase himself before Muslims for the sake of improved relations and received little for his efforts. This pope is different. He is not prepared to pretend that it is of no matter that in Europe Muslims are free to worship as they please and to build mosques at will, while in Turkey and the Muslim world, Christians are generally not permitted to build churches and face state-sanctioned discrimination. It is better, says Benedict, to speak frankly about the world as it is, rather than about the world Western elites wish we lived in.

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