Pope in Turkey heals wounds, opens dialogue’s doors, Islam expert says

UCANews (www.ucanews.com)
ROME (UCAN) – Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit to Turkey has healed wounds and opened doors in Christian-Muslim relations, says Father Thomas Michel, a Rome-based expert on Islam.  

The Jesuit priest, who spent parts of six years teaching in Turkey, describes these results of the papal visit to the predominantly Muslim country as "unexpected."

During the pope's Nov. 28-Dec. 1 visit to Turkey, Father Michel stayed at the Jesuit house in Ulus, Ankara, Turkey's capital, and followed the whole visit closely. UCA News interviewed the priest in Rome four days after the pope concluded his visit.

Father Michel, member of the Jesuits' Indonesian province, was head of the Office for Islam of the Vatican's Pontificial Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 13 years, from 1981 to 1994. The office was formerly called the Secretariat for Non-Christians.

Currently the Jesuits' secretary for interreligious dialogue, he was for several years executive secretary of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences.

During his years in Turkey, Father Michel taught in Muslim theological faculties, including at universities in Ankara and Izmir, and at Selcuk University in Konya. He has returned to visit the country numerous times.

The interview, conducted by Gerard O'Connell, UCA News' special correspondent in Rome, follows:

UCA News: What is your assessment of the pope's visit to Turkey?

FATHER THOMAS MICHEL: It was much better than anybody foresaw. It really healed the wounds to an extent people wouldn't have thought possible. It opened the doors to the future of Christian-Muslim relations to an extent people hadn't thought possible for a long time to come.

Both the pope and the Turkish officials went out of their way to avoid conflict, to accept and understand each other as they are. That's really what dialogue is about. This is really a very good example of how you go about dialogue.

UCA News: Did anything about the visit make a particular impression on you?

FATHER MICHEL: I was impressed by the pope's speech to Mr. Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the Department of Religious Affairs. His closing lines were an appeal to Muslims, via Bardakoglu, to make a common witness of faith -- notice he used the word in the singular, "faith," not in the plural, "faiths" -- based on our common desire to do the will of the One God.

I thought this was a new and creative application of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which says Muslims and Christians have this common mission in the world to work together for the common good in four key areas of life: social justice, peace, moral values and true human freedom (Nostra Aetate, n.3).

UCA News: Do you perceive a difference in approach to Muslims between Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II?

FATHER MICHEL: He (Pope Benedict XVI) reconfirmed the views of John Paul II. I don't see any departure from the positions taken by John Paul II, but this is not surprising, because the reality is that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI are being faithful to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which says that "the Catholic Church has esteem for Muslims." When we act with genuine esteem for Muslims, as we saw Benedict doing in Turkey, Muslims respond very positively, as we saw the Turkish officials and public doing.

UCA News: What do you think about the pope praying in Istanbul's 'Blue Mosque'?

FATHER MICHEL: I didn't expect this. I was very happy to hear that the pope would visit the mosque and remembered too that John Paul II had said a prayer at the tomb of Saint John the Baptist in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. (Editor's note: Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the main mosque in Istanbul, is commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue ceramic tiles used for its roof domes and minaret peaks.)

I didn't know that Benedict XVI would stop for a moment of meditation and silent prayer in the Blue Mosque, but in doing so, he gives us Christians a very good example. Prayer is something we want to do to God in every place that's appropriate, and where more than in a mosque where Muslims are worshipping and praying to the same God five times a day? I think that by praying in the mosque, Pope Benedict confirms the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that Muslims and Christians worship one and the same God.

Sometimes individuals have questioned whether the God of Muslims and the God of Christians is one and the same God. But this is clear from Nostra Aetate (the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965), and now the pope's willingness to pray in the mosque confirms this.

It's the physical gestures that people remember, and in his gesture of praying in the mosque before the mihrab (a niche in the wall that faces toward Mecca), he communicated to Muslims something that the pope couldn't communicate in words. This gesture communicated the sincerity of his words, that not only is Benedict XVI a man of God, a man of prayer, but also that he is a man of God together with Muslims.

You can say all this in words but it doesn't reach peoples' hearts and minds in the same way. That is what the pope's gesture in praying at the mosque achieved. My friends in Turkey say that in this act they saw him standing with them before the one God.

UCA News: Is prayer, then, another form of dialogue?

FATHER MICHEL: I think it's worth remembering that John Paul II, already in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man, 1979), talks about the ways of coming closer to people of other religions, and he gives a privileged place to "prayer in common."

As convinced monotheists, we believe that however one conceives of God or calls upon God, there is only the One God who is hearing those prayers. That is what John Paul II was talking about already in his "Radio Address to the Peoples of Asia," which he delivered from Manila on Feb. 21, 1981. He said: "Whenever the human spirit opens itself in prayer to this Unknown God, an echo will be heard of the same Spirit who, knowing the limits and weakness of the human person, himself prays in us and on our behalf."

So we Christians shouldn't be nervous about praying with others because it is always the one and only God who hears those prayers. If this is the case with all religions, how much more it is true of Christians, Muslims and Jews, (who) share a long tradition of faith going back to Abraham?

It is like what John Paul II told the Catholic community in Ankara on Nov. 29, 1979, that Muslims "share with you the faith of Abraham in the one, omnipotent and merciful God." He recalled that "the Second Vatican Council expressed itself openly on this" and added that he too had noted this in Redemptor Hominis (n. 11). This is the same faith that Benedict XVI was referring to last week in his speech, once again in Ankara on Nov. 28, almost exactly 17 years later, to the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Dr. Ali Bardakoglu, and other Muslim leaders.

UCA News: Some people say Pope Benedict has done a "flip-flop," espousing one position in Regensburg, Germany, on Sept. 12, and a totally opposite one in Ankara and Istanbul.

FATHER MICHEL: Has Benedict XVI done a flip-flop? I don't think so. Remember that he has only met Muslims formally on three occasions – in Cologne (August 2005, during World Youth Day), in Ankara and in Istanbul.

His talks and gestures and whole way of acting in Turkey were very much in line with what he said and how he acted in Cologne. Also, content-wise, his speeches were very much the same in Germany and in Turkey.

I think the anomaly was the lecture he gave at the University of Regensburg, Germany, where the subject of his address was "faith and reason," not Islam.
UCA News: You have spent much time in Turkey. What do you think Turkish people made of the papal visit?
FATHER MICHEL: I've taught in Muslim theological faculties in Turkey in six different years, and I've been there a number of other times for academic conferences and workshops, and I have many friends here. And the feedback I get about the pope's visit is universally positive and really good.

One thing that is really good is to see that a whole nation is happy because somebody is praying. The pope's prayer was front-page news in Turkey, and the story and the photos of him in prayer in the Blue Mosque were recounted in the newspapers and discussed on television accounts of the visit.

It says a lot about Turks that they would be so pleased about the pope's prayer in the mosque. In today's secular world, it is refreshing and healthy that people would care whether a state guest would pause in prayer in a place that carries a lot of meaning for them. In fact, it affirms many of Benedict XVI's themes elsewhere about the need to rediscover God in the midst of modern life.

UCA News: How was the media coverage?

FATHER MICHEL: I found the TV presentation by the Turkish commentators a real confirmation of the whole process of dialogue.

I was sitting in Ankara watching the visit on Turkish television with friends. We knew practically all the TV commentators. They were really well informed and very sympathetic about Christianity. This would not have been possible if they, like us, had not been the products of a 20-year-long dialogue that my Muslim and Christian colleagues have been conducting in Turkey and Rome.

I've known one commentator since he was 9 years old, because I've known his father in dialogue situations for the past 20 years. Other television commentators were professors in Muslim theological faculties that invited us to teach about Christianity. Still others were journalists who had interviewed us over the years.

It was the knowledge that they had learned about Christianity and Catholicism in the course of dialogue encounters that they, not us, were communicating to the Turkish public, and they were doing so very competently and accurately.

I've spent a lot of time educating people about Islam and educating Muslims about Christianity. This is also what the other Jesuits here in Ankara are doing, and what many others that I know are doing elsewhere.

It's not a question of converting anyone. Rather it's the way of coming to understand another religion in the way believers themselves understand it. You don't stand outside. You enter it by way of friendship and, once "in," it is not hard to see God's Spirit at work.

Again, to return to the pope's visit, it was Muslim students from Turkey studying at the (Pontifical) Gregorian University in Rome who were doing the live commentary of the papal visit on Italian and Vatican TV, and they did an excellent job. As the commentators in Turkey were helping Muslims to understand Christianity, so these students were helping Italian viewers to understand Turkey and Islam better.

UCA News: Many people in Turkey were asking how one can explain or reconcile what the pope said in Regensburg with how he spoke and acted in Turkey. Your answer?

FATHER MICHEL: Regensburg happened. We can't deny it. But very seldom do human relations run in a straight line without any deviation or stumbling. In Turkey, the pope showed that he's not going to be blocked in his own relations with Muslims because of the controversy over Regensburg, and the Turks too showed that they're not going to be blocked either. They've both shown that they're not going to be prisoners of the past. They're both going to move on, to build better relations.

UCA News: Some Muslims in Turkey say they still don't trust the pope. What is your reaction to this?

FATHER MICHEL: In human relations trust is fragile. It's difficult to gain and easy to lose.

I remember that John Paul II didn't start out with a high level of trust among Muslims. In the early years, when he was saying good things, many Muslims said he is only doing publicity, he doesn't mean these things. It was only over the course of many years, when he kept enunciating a consistent message and acting over and over with the same friendship and respect that Muslims began to see that they could really trust him.

I hope the same happens with this pope – Benedict XVI. He's got a reservoir of goodwill from this visit, and I hope that when he next meets Muslims he will build on this and continue to act in a similar manner. In that way he too will gradually come to earn their trust.

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Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (www.ucanews.com).

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