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Europe diary: Turkish tensions

30 November 2006

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell finds Turks wary of the Pope's historic visit and grapples with the religious controversy sparked by the pontiff's speech in Bavaria.

Pope Benedict XVI waves upon arrival at Izmir airport

It must be a very strange visit for the Pope. In Turkey there are none of the cheering, adoring crowds he must be used to by now. The largish figure in white robes is hustled along by men in dark suits from mausoleum to bullet-proof car, from the car into the next meeting.

The lack of enthusiasm is hardly surprising in a country of 70 million where only 100,000 or so are Christians. But the atmosphere is tense rather than indifferent, because of his comments on Islam. It's ironic that his first visit is to the Mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, who wanted to strip religion out of politics. Not much chance of that on this trip, or in the current climate.


The last legal anti-pope rally before the Pope's arrival is a curious mixture of righteous anger and a good-natured get-together. Men carrying trays of sticky peanut sweets move lithely among the crowd packing the closed-off Istanbul dual carriageway. Other salesmen have slightly more difficulty pushing through their wheeled carts full of the distinctive ring-shaped Turkish bread. Children weave between the legs of the chanting men. A woman in a bright purple headscarf skilfully waves two Turkish flags, one in each hand, while managing to bounce up and down in time to Turkish pop music.

Turks protest against the Pope's visit
Not all of the crowd's messages were immediately obvious

But there is also no doubting the fury etched on the faces of the men as they shout political and religious slogans. Most of the women are camped out on a grassy embankment by the roadside, rather more sedately waving the placards handed out by the party. These slogans are printed in English: "Inquisition? (no comment)"; "Crusades, what a very peaceful walk" speak for themselves.

The anger at the perceived religious insult is inextricably bound up with the cultural and political assumptions behind it. They feel they are being accused of having an inherently violent religion by a culture that they argue is soaked in the blood of others, and refuses to accept its own guilt.

Other placards make more obscure points. "Have you read the Barnabas Bible?" takes a bit of working out. The said Bible turns out to be either a fake written in the 14th Century or the true gospel which predicts the coming of Muhammad, depending on your beliefs. But the one that has me truly baffled is apparently itself a quote: "'We spit on the tomb of Jesus' S Kikeerguard". None of those I speak to who are carrying the banner have even the slightest acquaintance with Danish existentialism or have a clue what the banner means. Can any one out there help decode?


The Pope's words which sparked this and so many other demos came in a lecture back in September to his old university at Regensburg in Germany. He quoted the remarks of the 14th Century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus: "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."

Pope giving Regensburg speech
The Pope said his Regensburg message was "misunderstood"

There's an argument by some Catholics that the media and Muslims have taken the words out of context, and so provoked an unnecessary fuss. Given that it is a theological tour de force to a group of academic theologians it would be hard to put them in context, but here goes.

He does say that the emperor is expressing himself "with a brusqueness that we find unacceptable". But the emperor is the only person quoted at any length in a speech of 3,900 words. The other two people who are quoted more briefly are the rather better known figures of St Paul and Plato.

As far as I have understood the general argument (and I admit I find it pretty complex and dense), it is aimed as much as Protestantism as Islam. The Pope argues that Christianity is a synthesis between the Bible and ancient Greek thought, and that attempts to strip away the latter and return "to the man Jesus and his simple message" are "coarse and false" and would reduce Christianity to "a fragment of its former self". He argues that it is Greek thought that makes Christianity a rational faith, by which he seems to mean that even God has to exist within certain rules of morality. By contrast he claims that in Islam God is defined by his own transcendence and limitlessness and so is not bound even to truth and goodness, and so can be called capricious...


This doesn't cut much ice with the respected Imam Ali Riza Demircan. He's a small dapper man, neatly dressed in a dark suit and grey collarless shirt closed at the neck, with a magnificent white button set with a small twinkling diamond. He says the Pope is ignorant and does not have it in him to apologise. As for many, this is not merely a question of religion but of politics. How can he, he says, accuse Muslims of believing in the sword when World War I, World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan were all started by Christian countries?

Your comments:

Turks & Muslims in general believe that Christians spread their religion by the sword, and they are still haunted by the horrific bloody crusades that took place several hundred years ago, and which were encouraged by popes at that time. For the Pope then to say that Islam was spread with violence is very much perceived by Moslems as unfair. Also it is very well known that Catholicism was spread in Latin America by violence.
Salam. A. Mustafa , Amman, Jordan

I was also intrigued by the Kierkegaard reference, so I did a bit of searching. SK did see Islam as in some sense inferior to both Christianity and Judaism. He once wrote: "When one views the historical roles of the religions on their journey through the world, the relationship is as follows: Christianity is the actual proprietor who sits in the carriage; Judaism is the coach-man; Muhammedanism is a groom, who does not sit with the coachman, but behind."
Rob Churchill, West Sussex

The Pope's allusion to the obscure Byzantine Emperor's saying was a mistake, granted. It appears he got a crash course in Islam recently by a Tunisian scholar. However, his initiative to reach out to other beliefs, and to condemn volence is courageous and needs encouragement. The Muslim community is much too complacent with their own fanatics. Of course the crusades were a mistake - but then in the past, everybody made so many. It is high time to look at the present! hww (a (moderate) Calvinist! :-)
hans-werner wabnitz, St Jean de Vedas, France

Once again, it is demonstrated that the 'secularity' of Turkey is but a line in the constitution. A line of law does not itself change reality, and Turkey, being the successor of the Ottoman Empire, has Islam deeply under its skin. And when you look closely at Islam, there is certainly something to be wary of. The Quran is hard to comprehend, but the Hadith (life and sayings of Muhammad) are easier. What is troubling, though, is the persistent call to war that permeates these works, as well as the clear command to obey Muhammad and consider him an example for humankind. If we took that literally, plunder and unrest would be the order of the day. Fortunately, most Muslims do not use the example of Muhammad by the letter. But some do, and it is important to know their motivation, and to stop any kind of religious violence they incite.

On this account, the pope is quite clever. He calls for abandoning any violence in the name of religion. That leaves the imams in a quandary. If they reject it, they will rightly be seen as advocating violence. On the other hand, if they accept it, significant parts of the life of Muhammad and the Quran must be discarded. The imams must come up with a way to reform Islam away from violence. And while we cannot do it for them, it is a good thing that the pope keeps pointing at the painful spots.
Henrik R Clausen, Brabrand, Denmark

Mark Mardell hasn't quite understood what the Pope was saying. It is not that God is bound by morality nor that Greek thought "makes" Christianity a rational faith. The point is that whereas streams of Islamic thought identify Allah with his transcendence, true Christian faith recognises that God is identical to his attributes; Goodness, Truth, Beauty and Reason. He is not bound by reason but is reason, or as St John's Gospel has it, "Logos". Christianity and indeed any discourse about God needs must therefore be guided by, informed by reason. It is in this space that the Pope is trying, a little hamfistedly at times, to open up genuine inter-faith dialogue, at a time when it is sorely needed and when reason is what is missing from both religion and politics the world over.
Joseph Bowden, London UK

This is just the usual pot calling the kettle black. Both religions have relied heavily on the sword for their spread. The Janissaries at the gates of Vienna were as loathed and unwanted as the Conquistadors at the gates of Tenochtitlan. A Turkish professor recently commented on the stubborn desire of people to believe in the immaculate conception of their own nation. The same applies to religions. It's time religious leaders on both sides shut up and looked at the mote in their own eye.
Jonathan Rudge, Salisbury, UK

I hate to see that we, the Turkish people, are portrayed as unwelcoming bigots. I hate to see the bearded faces, women with turbans creating the image for all of us. I wish there were a way to make our voices heard, voices who believe that this country should not be made all about Islam, because it's not and it's never been. The genuine people of Turkey, of Anatolia have respect and sympathy for every religion. I celebrate the Pope's visit to Turkey.
Duygu Atlas, Izmir, Turkey

It is a historical fact that Islam conquered ancient Christian civilizations. The climax of these conquests came with the taking of Constantinople in 1453. The pope never definitively said that Islam is a violent religion. He issued a challenge to Christians and Muslims to reject all forms of violence done in the name of religion as something irrational and ipso facto, unpleasing to God. Another point worthy of mention is that the Crusades were originally called to defend the Christian communities in the Holy Land living under Muslim rule. These Christians were subject to various humiliations and persecutions by their Muslim rulers. That the Crusaders committed atrocities is beyond doubt, but even the popes of the day strongly condemned these acts because they contradicted the essence of Christianity's message as found in Scripture.
James A. Maldonado, Rome

You've summarised the meaning of the Pope's Regensburg speech very well. It was much more a critique of modern reason, stripped of faith, than it was of Islam. But, like so many Muslims, the view of the Imam you quote misses the point entirely. If he apologised for what the Emperor said, it would imply that he agreed with that view, which he clearly doesn't. And, unlike terrorism perpetrated by Muslims, the two world wars (and in Iraq and Afghanistan) were not fought in the name of Christianity but for political reasons.
Ted Fox, Rome, Italy

And still it amazes that all self-righteous Euro-grabbing Europeans and businesses alike want to welcome Turkey into the EU, when the former is a long way off from welcoming people of different faiths other than Islam.
Victor, Athens, Greece

I'm sorry that you find the issues the Pope raised in his Regensburg speech 'pretty complex and dense', but perhaps if you re-read the speech you will notice that the 'brusque' comment on Islam was used in a debate between Christian and Muslim. It was being used as an example of how forcefully people could debate. There is no sense anywhere in the speech that suggests this view of Islam is the Pope's. Of course the reporting, and comments, on the speech seem to have often been made by people who have not read the speech itself.
Michael Hogan, Birkenhead. Merseyside

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) declared that Christians should accept and respect Muslims as followers of God and of the example of Abraham. Pope Paul II apologised to Muslims for the conduct of Christians during the Crusade. I understand from Yahiya Emerick's book Understanding Islam that Islam is a "beautiful spiritual tradition that emphasizes love, faith in God and a spirit of charity to all living things". Isn't it time that Imam Ali Riza Demircan showed this?
Joseph O'Sullivan, Chichester

Funny how the Pope tries to dress up his own religious doctrine at the expense of others. Just because Catholicism uses the language of rational Greek thought does not in itself make Christianity rational. Instead it merely serves as a smokescreen to disguise the inherently irrational nature of all religion, particularly one that believes in such superstitious nonsense as miracles, saints, relics, the raising of people from the dead, angels, transubstantiation and an omnipotent being. When the Pope truly embraces rational thought is the day he hangs up his cassock and says Darwin was right!
Huw Sayer, Norwich, Norfolk.

The pope should simply apologise to the Muslim community about the incident then everything will be put in line. We all want peace in this world, religious leaders are mechanisms that can be used to create peace and if they fail then what happens next? He should find a way of apologising to the Muslims as we create peace in the world.
karim makumbi, kampala, uganda

At last I have heard some sort of description of what the pope said, thank you! Anyway, as a Christian I find the pope's words blasphemous. Also, I do believe the Koran specifically forbids conversion by the sword. None of that justifies the reaction. Turkish society clearly has issues with freedom of speech. Just as the pope seems to have issues with the simplicity of the message given directly from the mouth of God (Jesus) to man.
Dafydd, Hull

With reference to the crusades, the Turks conquered what is now Turkey from the Greeks at roughly the same time in history. Unlike the crusaders the Turks stayed and have all but obliterated the indigenous people and culture. The Pope's visit to Turkey is nothing to do with Islam. It is to meet the head of the Orthodox Church who, despite Turkish oppression, still resides in his ancient seat in what is now Istanbul.
David Forrester, Glasgow,UK

World wars I and II had nothing to do with the spreading Christianity. Neither do the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the spreading of Islam by the sword in the Middle East, North Africa and even Spain in the Middle Ages was according to the teaching of Mohammed historical fact.
Herman De Wulf, Merchtem, Belgium

Why are Muslims always so easily upset? If their god is the true god, surely he can defend himself...
Tim Johnson, Cheshire

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was the Danish philosopher widely regarded as providing the foundations of existentialism (Oxford Companion to Philosophy). He argued that the established Christian churches, especially the Catholic church, by basing so much of their doctrine and practices on Greek thought, had lost contact with the truths of Jesus' teachings. The Pope is correct that Islam (and, indeed, Judaism) teaches that God is not bound by limited human perceptions of what is good or true. Islam also teaches that this is because God is not limited in His knowledge, so He acts, and permits humans to act, according to His unlimited perception of what is ultimately good and true (i.e. an event may seem to humans to be bad, but God causes or allows it because it is part of an ultimately good and true plan). Finally, Islam teaches that humans must act according to what seems to be good and true within their limited perceptions, guided by God's revelation in the Qur'an.
gildas_britannia, Oxford, UK

I must say, I am surprised at the abysmal ignorance of the Pope's comment. A practising, liberal-minded Muslim myself, I usually denounce the unnecessary resort to violence by many in the Muslim world, but I find the Pope's comment to be utterly distasteful and insulting to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his more than 1.2 billion followers around the globe. In addition, his response to the outrage by the Muslim world, that his comments have been 'misunderstood' is a weak, vapid attempt at face-saving, which clearly has not been saved.
Asifa, Islamabad, Pakistan

The world is a very complicated place with sensitive issues and therefore wars will inevitably continue to occur. Chances are that 99% of the soldiers taking part in these wars will either be Christians or Muslims. The difference between Christianity and Islam, in my view, is that the Christian soldier knows and believes that killing is wrong and that it is completely against his faith and the teachings of the Bible. He knows that by killing another human being his soul will be condemned to Hell for eternity. That is why he will ask for God¿s forgiveness hoping to reverse the damage. In contrast, however, the Muslim soldier will kill believing that by killing a Christian solder he will go to Heaven. Killing for him is actually an incentive to gain access to Heaven, hence the suicide bombings we witness every day.
sodos polycarpou, Nicosia, Cyprus

The former Herr Ratzinger's visit to Turkey is not to build bridges with Islam, he came to reconcile with the Orthodox Church. He was allowed to come due to the curtsey of the President of the Republic of Turkey. We in Turkey feel that nothing he says is either genuine or true, or does he change his mind every 5 minutes?
Filiz, Istanbul , Turkey

Islam's basis seems to be that religion and government are the same thing. Christianity is exactly not this, and though the Christian countries' governments may be run by Christians, lay law (if you would permit the term) has no basis in Jesus' word. That's the point. Greek thought (Greek is the language of the New Testament) provided exactly the transitional capacity wherein the priest was only an intermediary but not the sole funnel to God. This idea was rejected by Mohamed as he came later in favor of a strong set of laws enforced by his concept of cruel justice. And just to add the historical perspective, the Armenian Genocide (along with the equally barbaric Greek Eviction - from among other places Constantinople) were Moslem Turkish events.
george cartzas, Athens Greece

Dear Imam Ali Riza Demircan, a few small points for you to consider. I don't think Mr Hitler's Nazi party was particularly Christian in its outlook. Do you recall Pearl Harbor? Do you remember the 'Kuwait invasion' by Iraq causing the original Iraq conflict? We all remember 9/11. Kindly leave Christians out of your statements.
Paolo Baroni, London

The Pope's visit is stategically timed. He main aim as Pope is to bring the Muslims under his control. His main objective is to have total control of all religious bodies. He has chosen Turkey because of its being one of the strongholds of Islam. Turkey also is fighting to be admitted to the European Union. With this in mind, the Jesuits and the Pope want to penetrate the Muslims through Turkey. In my opinion, I strongly believe that they have scored goals towards their objectives.
Mayambu Henry, Kitwe. Zambia

Did "Christian" countries really start the war in Iraq, Iran, Afganistan and World Wars 1 & 2? Were those wars about faith? Funny to think a learned Imam considers the Nazi regime as Christian.
Ikenna Okorie, Lagos, Nigeria

The reactions against the Pope are actually an indication of growing anti-westernism (ie, against the EU and the USA) in Turkey as well as the Islamic world. The Pope is seen as the symbol of the West by a great majority of Turks. Please remember that thanks to Ataturk, Turkey is the only country in the Islamic world with a secular character. Despite great efforts to change it both internally and externally, it has to keep its secular character in order to contribute to international peace and cooperation. It is not a coincidence that even the Pope repeated Ataturk's words during his visit of the Mauseleum: "Peace at home, peace in the world." I believe it is high time the West criticised itself instead of blaming others for whatever they believe is wrong. The Pope, too, should act and speak more responsibly about Islam, keeping in mind what his actions and words could really mean as the head of the world Catholics. Does he really want to be seen as the spearhead, or at least, the supporter of Bush policies in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Seyfi Durhan, Ankara, Turkey

Obviously the placard with the Kierkegaard quote is meant to be a sarcastic counter-punch to the Pope's crafty (and cowardly) use of a quote to express his (and many Europeans') real views on Islam (viz. it being a violent religion and having brought nothing but bloodshed to the world). Of course, it's also a sloppy quote taken wildly out of context, because Kierkegaard would have meant 'We spit on the tomb of Jesus' as a critique of modern (in his 19th century) bourgeois 'Christians' and their hollow faith that was more show and ritual, devoid of the 'fear and trembling' that true faith entails. There's probably further irony involved in that Jesus was resurrected and so is not actually in the tomb, so we're spitting on something hollow (i.e. our vitriol is misplaced)... I'm just guessing from a cursory knowledge of Kierkegaard, I may be way off. Hope that helps.
Attila, Istanbul

You don't give the full story: One more aspect that is equally upsetting the Turkish side is that the Pope with his visit is highlighting the role of the Greek Orthodox leader Bartholomew who was the main reason for the Pope's visit. Throughout the years the Turks did their best to suppress the role of the Patriarch.
A Tsikoudas, Edinburgh, UK

Why is it that the western media concentrates on the protests by Turks on Pope's visit? There were also cheering crowds yesterday, yet none of it was shown. The west was expecting huge demonstrations and it did not happen. Maybe it is time to abandon the doctrine of clash of civilizations and focus on more common grounds that may eventually bring understanding between the east and the west?
Mayda Gursel, Ankara, Turkey

By my judgement of the English version of his speech in Regensburg, Ratzinger used the teaching and followers of Islam as straw-men in his argument - discreetly avoiding the irony of it all, that the Holy See for centuries sanctioned and propagated crusades, trying "to spread by the sword the faith". Also, when "apologizing", he follows the model of the Scandinavian authorities after the caricature episode last February: not apologizing for what was said (which he could have done, since he had said it), but only saying the outcome was regrettable, since someone misunderstood him. So technically, he hasn't apologized or regretted anything - just done some firefighting.
Kristian Egil Batta Torheim, Nairobi, Kenya

Much of the history of Islam and the relationship between Muslims and Europe is largely unknown to many. Contribution of Islam to science, education and modern Europe is mostly hidden and distorted. Sadly those who know, like the Pope and many others, when making reference to Islam dwell mainly on the negatives. This is what annoys Muslims.
Idris Sakwa, Seychelles

I think the Moslems in Turkey are just being extremist as usual. I work in a communication house comprising a printing press owned by the Catholic archdiocese of Douala.You will not believe that there Christian Cardinal Tumi, proprietor, recommended the recruitment of Moslems in the printing press - something no other religion or denomination would do. In a friendly way I asked one of my Moslem colleagues if the word "forgive" exists in Islam. He said yes, but unfortunately many Moslems still believe in the concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Agendia Aloysius, Douala, Cameroon

It is not correct to hold the Pope accountable for all Christians or Christian faiths. While I am not a student of theological history, Catholics were not responsible for creating any of the above 20th Century conflicts. While major mistakes were made in countries such as Croatia in the 1930s the prevailing view at the time was that Catholics had to respond to the threat of Communism. Clearly their approach was wrong. If we are going to play the blame game then the Pope should only be held accountable for the sins of Catholics and in particular the Catholic Church. Given that the Crusades occurred some 800 years ago it would also be nice to think that one day everyone could get over them as well.
Kevin Thomson, Wellington, New Zealand

I'm at a loss to understand why some Muslims care so much about what the Pope thinks about their religion. This Pope (and the previous one) have said some pretty ignorant and offensive things about my faith (Buddhism), but I don't see it as worth getting upset about. I don't really care what the Pope thinks to be frank - why can't Muslims just ignore him or laugh him off?
David Welsh, Oslo, Norway

The pope's comments regarding Christianity, never mind Islam, are disturbing. The idea that the religion which Jesus of Nazereth founded should be synthesised with ancient Greek thought is, in my opinion, offensive and a total corruption of the simple message of the New Testament.
Michael, Letterkenny, Ireland

Pope did not make those comments about Islam and Prophet Mohammad in vacuum. He has an agenda and it is the agenda of Crusaders. Crusader armies have conquered Iraq and Afghanistan and have plans for Iran. Pope is the cheerleader for the Crusader armies.
Naveed Khan, San Jose, USA

What a pity that Mark Mardell in his very long article doesn't mention the real meaning & value of the Pope's visit to Turkey... to try to reconcile the 1000-year rift between the Orthodox Christians of the East with the Christians of the West. Just as his long talk with Archbishop Rowan Williams and his arch-critic within the Roman Church (Hans Kung) shows that he has a genuine desire to reunite Christians, as Jesus said "That they all may be one". Even when this means risking his own life in a Moslem country. How can Mark miss the whole point of the visit? Vincent Gillett
Rev.V.Gillett (Anglican), U.K.

I cannot believe how biased this article is in presenting the Turkish view of the Pope's visit. It completely ignores all the positive comments made in the media and the guy in the street and represents the (peaceful) demonstration of the country's most radical Islamists as the general attitude of the public. I know countless people around me who welcome the Pope, whatever he has said in the past.
Just a citizen, Ankara, Turkey

The lands of the Middle East had been Christian until the Muslim MILITARY invasion in the mid- to late 600s AD and Jerusalem was where, according to Christians, Jesus had died and ascended to Heaven, whereas the historical Mohammed never got anywhere near the city in his lifetime. The lands invaded by the Crusaders still contained significant Christian populations, and up until the middle of this century still did. Muslim intolerance has driven a lot of them out of their ancestral lands and to western nations.
Rob, Perth, WA

I do believe the Pope has been misunderstood. The media should be blamed for this controversy. Pls lets preach a more peaceful world and let this matter die once and for all.
jewel, lagos,nigeria

Is Ali Riza Demircan aware of the fact that Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, were all Christian countries before the arrival of "holy warfare"? Which religion started the concept? Just wondering...
Jonathan McKee, Stenungsund

I find it quite hilarious that the Pope has the guile to imply that Islam is an irrational religion. The most crucial and defining characteristic of Christianity, the 'holy Trinity', transcends the boundaries of all logic and reason, whereas all in Islam has been explained using reason, except for matters of faith which simply cannot be proven based on reason alone, but require faith, such as the actual belief in a god or angels.

When the fundamental belief of a religion, the only major difference between Islam and Christianity, is completely illogical, who is the Pope to say that Christianity is based on reason when he follows the Trinity like a sheep being led to the slaughter?
Mohammed Alam, Toronto, Canada

As far as I understand, this meeting was a gathering of a very small right-wing extremist party. I am having hard times understanding why this would be the only issue that is presented by Mr. Mardell. There would be lots to write about the Pope's messages regarding Islam, Orthodox Christians, and Turkey's EU bid... I have been in Turkey on many occasions, and from what I have seen they are extremely secular (maybe a bit too much). There are extremists everywhere (not to mention Turkey). However, I think the more we look at extremists and the less at ordinary people, we would provide the extremists with exactly what they want: Attention!
John Duttroux, Seattle, WA, US


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