By Annette Grossbongardt and Alexander Smoltczyk
The Alitalia AZ4000 flight was cleared for takeoff. But the jet, an Airbus, still stood on the runway at Rome's Fiumicino Airport. There was something left to say.
The pope was speaking to the journalists traveling with him. And to himself. It must not happen again: Since his speech in Regensburg, Germany, since his misunderstood remark about the Prophet Muhammad, every word and gesture count. And in the coming days they would count double. Joseph Ratzinger was visiting his colleague Dimitrios Archondonis in Istanbul. Or, put another way, Benedict XVI, spiritual leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, was travelling to visit His All Holiness, the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, representative of about 250 million Orthodox Christians. And then there were the 1.3 billion Muslims, from Sadr City to Gaza, from Bradford to Karachi, who would follow every word that the 79-year-old man cloaked in white would say during the next four days.
"This is not a political visit," he began. "but a pastoral mission aimed at promoting dialog and a common committment to peace." He coughed. Here was the rub: A Christian religious leader was about to enter a land whose population is up to 99 percent Muslim, whose constitution upholds secularism, yet which currently is ruled by a former Islamist; a country where it is harder to get a church built than a garbage landfill. And here was the other rub: Two Christendoms -- Orthodox and Catholic, were now supposed to hold hands after about a thousand years of reciprocal excommunications and charges of heresy, extending practically up to the present day.
Host Bartholomew I may well be the 270th successor of Apostle Andrew, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch -- but local authorities call him Dimitrios Archondonis. Actually, Benedict XVI had wanted to make a short trip to Istanbul last year, for St. Andrew's Day, on Nov. 30. But the government in Ankara had protested. A simple man of the church, a man like Dimitrios Archondonis, could not invite a head of state. And so a planned stopover turned into a state visit. But then came Regensburg, and a newspaper in Istanbul wrote: "Turkey will be the pope's grave." There had been easier trips, to put it mildly.
Benedict XVI returned to his seat, 1A, front left. From behind, one could see the little red caps of Cardinals Ruini and Bertone above the seatbacks. The other cardinals were a bit shorter. The flight attendants handed out a collection of articles about the trip to Turkey from Osservatore Romano, a little packet of pralines and a menu card decorated with a gold band and the papal coat of arms. The normal safety instructions were dropped. And there was no talk of placing "oxygen masks over mouth and nose."
In Istanbul's Catholic Holy Spirit parish, Louis Pelâtre, Vicar Apostolic of Istanbul and titular Bishop, was checking to see that everything was prepared in the Vatican guesthouse. The classicist townhouse had once been the residency of the papal nuncios, but now Benedict XVI was to stay here. Municipal workers had just repainted the outer façade and replaced the loose cobblestones on the sidewalk.
Pelâtre spoke of the good neighbors in this rather poor quarter, populated by merchants, artists and students, Muslims, Christians and Jews. When Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was shot in front of his church in February, even Muslims from the neighborhood came to his memorial service. The Turkish constitution promises religious freedom. But the Catholic Church, with some 30,000 members, has no legal status; it is basically just tolerated. The communities were expecting to gain energy and encouragement from this papal visit; their daily life had not been any easier since Regensburg. "Your pope doesn't like Muslims," Bishop Pelâtre was hearing these days.
Out in the narrow streets, the police were out in strength. All residents were being checked and registered, and video cameras had been installed everywhere.
It seemed as though Ankara was preparing itself for a big shipment of toxic waste: The airport and its environs were practically dead; the access roads were empty of people, and on the hills, sentries stood motionless. As soon as it rolled to a stop, the pope's Airbus was surrounded by elite troops with ammunition belts slung over their shoulders.
"Great results cannot be expected from three days, I would say the value is symbolic." Benedict XVI uttered these words while still in the jet, speaking both to himself and the journalists.
It was all about gestures.
No national anthems, no streamers, no waving children. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood at the foot of the gangway, looking as serious as if this were a condolence visit. He greeted the pope as a head of state: "Welcome, Your Excellency" -- "Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister." Erdogan was flying directly from here to the NATO summit meeting in Riga. "Why should I change my schedule for a pope?" he had asked; but in the end he wound up staying a bit longer than planned.
As the two made their way down the short red carpet to the airport's VIP room, the pope's coat bulged at his shoulders and back as if he was actually wearing a bullet-proof vest, as some had speculated he might. Perhaps it was just an illusion.
Turkish coffee was offered in the VIP room; the chairs were deep, and the translator was a famous and opinionated film actress. Later, there would be utterly conflicting recollections of this meeting. "We are not political, but we wish for Turkey to join the EU." That's what the pope said, according to the actress's translation, explained the prime minister. It sounded as if he had expected this sentence as the visitor's gift, and as penance for Regensburg.
But when he spoke to journalists in his jet, the pope had said he would not take a stand on EU membership. He only mentioned Turkey's French-style constitution and said that dialog with European rationalism was at the heart of modern Turkey. Sometimes it is better to allow complexities their ambiguity.
The mausoleum of state founder Kemal Ataturk is the closest thing the secular republic has to a holy site. Benedict XVI entered, his coat wrapped around him like polystyrene. What does a pope do, if he has to display devotion without being allowed to pray?
Somewhat awkwardly, the soldiers assisted him in removing his mitre, shoving here and pushing there while taking off his coat. Then he put his hands together and paused a moment silently, as if standing before the grave of an apostle. He was not to move his lips now; or fold his hands. He wrote in the Golden Book: "Peace in the home, peace in the world" -- a rather simple notion, a quote from Ataturk.
The following day, this would produce the first sign of enthusiasm in the newspapers. Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey's leading Islamic authority, stepped out of the Office for Religious Matters, and rubbed his hands together, warming them in the cold evening air. His office oversees and controls Turkey's 70,000 mosques. Here it is decided whether eye-drops or mouth sprays are allowed during fast days, whether voluntary plastic surgery is a banned as an attack on Allah's creation.
An armoured limousine drove up with the Christian from the west, the man whom Bardakoglu charged with having "hate in his heart" against Islam. The fact that the Holy Father had come to meet one of his sharpest critics was, one of the papal bishops suggested, a true "gesture of humility."
The pope sat in a leather chair on a small raised platform, as Bardakoglu spoke. Shortly before this meeting, the head of the religion ministry had said he would now look forward, not back. But he couldn't help himself. The words emerging from his lips sounded like a belated counter-attack; he spoke of "islamophobia," of "a misconception that sees Islamic history and sources as promoting violence, and that believe Islam is spread with the sword." The bishops and cardinals, the entire Roman entourage clapped politely. The protector of Islam was speaking in Turkish, the pope in English, and with a dry voice. He said: Christianity and Islam belong to "one family."
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