Holy Father is on the threshold of entering into two worlds contained in one small country, Turkey. Here Islam and Orthodoxy intersect and overlap. I pray that the things that divide us from Orthodoxy can be healed. I pray for his safety.
Pope to make 1st visit to Muslim nation
By BRIAN MURPHY, AP Religion WriterMon Nov 20, 3:38 AM ET
When Pope Benedict XVI goes to Turkey this month for his first papal visit to a Muslim nation, he will in effect be making two distinct journeys.
The global spotlight will be on what efforts he makes to win back the respect of Muslims angered by his remarks on religious violence and the Prophet Muhammad. The other will be a pilgrimage to one of Christianity's last toeholds in Turkey.
Together they represent a test of Benedict's diplomatic finesse as he tries to calm Muslim ire while being pressed to make a forceful statement in defense of the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim lands.
The scheduled Nov. 29 meeting in Istanbul between the pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, will be the latest display of fellowship between the two ancient branches of Christianity and reinforce the dream of ending their nearly 1,000-year estrangement.
No breakthrough is expected at Bartholomew's walled compound in Istanbul, formerly the Christian Byzantine capital Constantinople before falling to Muslim armies in 1453.
Instead, the visit may highlight the weak links in efforts to heal the East-West divide in Christianity, which was sealed in 1054 after centuries of feuds over papal authority and differences in the liturgy.
Bartholomew is called the "first among equals" among the Orthodox leaders, but he wields little real power over the world's more than 250 million Orthodox. That power rests with the patriarchs of the various self-governing churches, the largest of which is the Russian Orthodox Church of Patriarch Alexy II, who rebuffed overtures by the late Pope John Paul II for a groundbreaking trip to Moscow.
Alexy is at the center of one of the main Orthodox complaints: the growth of Eastern Rite churches, which follow many Orthodox rites but are under the Vatican's jurisdiction. Orthodox fear the churches are expanding Vatican influence and luring away followers in Ukraine and other traditional Orthodox regions. The Vatican denies it is trying to poach Orthodox believers.
Benedict has had a better reception than John Paul among Orthodox leaders because of his affinity for the traditions of early Christianity and his respected theological scholarship. Alexy has suggested he might consider meeting Benedict, perhaps in a neutral third country, if there is progress on the Eastern Rite quarrels and other issues.
On Friday at the Vatican, Benedict said the four-day Turkey trip beginning Nov. 28 "will be a further sign of consideration for the Orthodox churches and will act as a stimulus to quicken the steps toward re-establishing full communion."
His remarks did not address the furor stoked by his Sept. 12 speech, in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor's description of Islam as a religion spread by the sword. But the Turkish officials he will meet include the head of religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, a top Islamic cleric who has said the pope's words threatened world peace.
On the Orthodox front, Benedict acknowledged, much still needs to be done.
The Orthodox leadership, too, is facing internal struggles over how to deal with a lopsided equation: Their fragmented structure versus the central authority that holds spiritual sway over 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
"The issue of papal primacy remains a very difficult one for the Orthodox," said the Rev. Igor Yevgeniyevich Vyzhanov, a Russian church spokesman. "This meeting with the pope should be just seen in terms of bilateral relationship between the Vatican and the ecumenical patriarchate. It cannot be seen as talks between the pope and the entire Orthodox world."
But Bartholomew's struggles still resonate far beyond his tiny enclave in Istanbul.
His pleas for minority rights carry particular sensitivity in Turkey, whose bid for European Union membership hinges on expanding religious and cultural freedoms.
In early November, Turkey's parliament passed a law allowing properties confiscated in the 1970s by the state to be returned to Christian and Jewish minority foundations. The decision, however, did not specifically address Orthodox demands to reopen a theological school shuttered 21 years ago.
"This trip could reinforce what many Orthodox already feel — that Pope Benedict is interested in making a real effort at healing the differences," said Thomas FitzGerald, dean at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass.
There have been some small but notable steps since May 2005, when Benedict declared a "fundamental commitment" to promote dialogue with the Orthodox.
In September, 60 top-level envoys gathered in Belgrade, Serbia, to restart Vatican-Orthodox talks that broke off six years ago over issues including papal authority and Eastern Rite churches. Separate meetings have continued between American Catholic and Orthodox representatives.
The influential head of the Greek Orthodox church, Archbishop Christodoulos, is scheduled to visit the Vatican on Dec. 14.
Even the timing of Benedict's trip is built around Orthodox sensibilities. His time with Bartholomew coincides with the feast day of the apostle-martyr St. Andrew, who traveled through Asia Minor and the Balkans and who, tradition says, ordained the first bishop of what would become Constantinople.