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Religion and Society

Francis Visits the Sultan

The apostolic voyage to Turkey was deeply marked by the tenacious invitation of Pope Francis to dare more – in a creative way – in inter-religious dialogue, in particular with Islam, the religion of nearly the whole of the population of a key country of the whole of the Middle East.

Pope Francis followed in the footsteps of his patron saint St. Francis, the poor little man of Assisi who in 1219 went to Damietta to try to convert the Sultan to the message of salvation of Christ. Pope Francis, for his part, armed with great humility, left for Ankara, a city in Anatolia and the capital of the Republic of Turkey since 1923. On 28 November of this year he thus went to the new palace of the new President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His opening speech to the leaders of Turkey expounded the real programme of his visit and expressed its real contents and also the mission that he wanted to carry out. The first observations that he made placed Turkey within a vast historical, geographical, geo-political and spiritual context, as could be deduced from its Christian past: ‘This land is precious to every Christian for being the birthplace of Saint Paul, who founded various Christian communities here, and for hosting the first seven Councils of the Church. It is also renowned for the site near Ephesus which a venerable tradition holds to be the “Home of Mary”, the place where the Mother of Jesus lived for some years. It is now a place of devotion for innumerable pilgrims from all over the world, not only for Christians, but also for Muslims’.

 

 

Francis thus began with the Christian history of this country which, indeed, increasingly runs the risk of forgetting a part of the heritage that history – or perhaps to put it better Providence – has entrusted to it, although by now it has an overwhelming Muslim majority. However, the rest of his speech concentrated on the contemporary state of this people when he observed that ‘the reasons why Turkey is held with such regard and appreciation are not only linked to its past and ancient monuments, but also have to do with the vitality of its present, the hard work and generosity of its people, and its role in the concert of nations’.

 

 

Giuseppe Roncalli, the papal nuncio in Turkey and Greece, during his spiritual retreat in the house of the Jesuit fathers near to the current Taksim Square, while he observed fishermen engaging in their arduous work thought of the Turkish people that he loved and the special vocation to which this nation was called.

 

 

Pope Francis seems today to have explained the meaning of this vocation in the concert of nations: recognition of the industriousness of this people also becomes a clear appeal to engage in the role of being a peacemaker, something that this great and welcoming country can become in the drama of its neighbours Iraq and Syria. Thus Pope Francis immediately came to the heart of the question: authentic freedom of religion both inside its borders , recognising that in a secular country full citizenship must be a right for everyone, and beyond its frontiers. Just as there must exist a full sense of citizenship within its borders, so Turkey can engage in a real undertaking of mediation in areas that are traversed by blind and irrational violence. The Pope was not afraid to entrust a task to this country: ‘Turkey, by virtue of its history, geographical position and regional influence, has a great responsibility: the choices which Turkey makes and its example are especially significant and can be of considerable help in promoting an encounter of civilizations and in identifying viable paths of peace and authentic progress’.

 

 

This line of political dialogue has its foundation in intercultural dialogue and even more in inter-religious dialogue. Indeed, in his encounter with the religious dignitaries and in particular with the Minister for Religious Affairs, Mehmet Görmez, Pope Francis took up the thread of his words about religiously motivated violence and approached it from the point of view of the responsibility of spiritual leaders: ‘As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights. Human life, a gift of God the Creator, possesses a sacred character. As such, any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace. The world expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences’.

 

 

These are calming words but also ones that invite us to a strong shouldering of responsibilities at the present time. For the Supreme Pontiff dialogue is not only a doctrinal fact it also becomes a social commitment and, perhaps even more, political engagement, above all in certain situations. A few days after his visit to Brussels the Pope went back to such subjects as the sacredness and the dignity of the human person which he had addressed before the European Parliament even though the Turkish context, apparently, could have inspired other reflections. Bergoglio was extremely coherent; his teaching is classic and it is always of contemporary relevance: dialogue, of an inter-religious character as well, that does not refer to the sacred dignity of the person does not bear fruit. A condemnation, therefore, of violence perpetrated against the weak and men and women of every race, condition and religion is a duty of religious leaders. However, side by side with pars destruens, Francis re-affirmed what he had already solemnly stated: ‘As well as denouncing such violations, we must also work together to find adequate solutions. This requires the cooperation of all: governments, political and religious leaders, representatives of civil society, and all men and women of goodwill. In a unique way, religious leaders can offer a vital contribution by expressing the values of their respective traditions’.

 

 

Christians and Muslims have too many values in common not to be directed towards the same objectives: ‘We, Muslims and Christians, are the bearers of spiritual treasures of inestimable worth. Among these we recognize some shared elements, though lived according to the traditions of each, such as the adoration of the All-Merciful God, reference to the Patriarch Abraham, prayer, almsgiving, fasting …’

 

 

The subject of inter-religious dialogue, the heart of his speech to the Minister for Religious Affairs, re-emerged in two gestures that confirmed the wish of the Pope to continue tenaciously along this road: the moment of discreet but intense prayer at the Blue Mosque in front of the niche that directs Muslim worship towards Mecca, and the appeal to inter-religious dialogue with Islam in the joint ecumenical declaration with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Fanar.

 

 

Dialogue appears to be at the centre of the concerns, the real concerns, of the Bishop of Rome. Not a drawing room conversation, but dialogue that descends into the social and the political without forgetting – indeed quite the opposite! – the respective riches of spiritual traditions.

 

 

Inter-religious dialogue, or perhaps even more the culture and the spirituality of dialogue, were the real rudder of the whole of the apostolic voyage of Pope Francis. As for that matter was confirmed on the aeroplane coming back to Rome by an answer that Francis gave to a question posed to him by a journalist: ‘We must engage in a leap of quality, we must achieve dialogue between religious people of different loyalties’. This is the leap of quality that matters today in a society that will ask for justice for young people, victims and the poor. This voyage from a point of view of geopolitical and inter-religious dialogue opened up new prospects: it was an invitation to use spiritual creativity to find solutions and remedies to conflicts, to violence and to disputes of various kinds. It was an opening and not a closing to encounter.

 

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