Same Lyrics, Different Tune

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Pope visits Turkey to 'bridge' religions

Istanbul, Turkey — If the Vatican had hired a high-profile New York public relations firm to help Pope Benedict XVI establish meaningful dialogue with Islam and move the world toward peace, it might have suggested a one-two punch: first Regensburg, then Turkey.

But, as painful episodes of recent church history make evident, public relations and communications are not the Catholic Church’s strong suit. In this light, there is only one way to explain the near-perfect combination of a bombshell speech in Regensburg that catapulted the media-shy Benedict on to the media’s radar screen and this week’s love-fest with Turkey’s political and spiritual leaders that has revealed the fullness and timeliness of the Pope’s message — in media language it's called “happenstance,” or in Catholic terminology, “the merciful, all-knowing providence of God.”

Be it luck or divine choreography, things didn’t look so good just a few days ago. Warning bells continued to sound as pro-Islamic political groups and the diplomatic slaps by Turkish government officials threatened, at best, to mute the Pope’s message, and at worst, to endanger his person.

At this point, in Turkey, those warning bells still ring, but quietly, while the Pope’s message is loud and clear; it’s Regensburg II — same lyrics, different tune.

The tune is brotherhood, understanding, mutual respect, and peace.

The lyrics, believe it or not, in their uncut form, in both Regensburg and Turkey, are not Christianity versus Islam, but rather the peaceful harmony of faith and reason against those who try to separate the two, in particular, the imposters of religion who commit violence in God’s name.

Translated into modern Turkish, the Pope’s message in part reads like this: as human beings created by the one and true God, what we have in common is greater than what separates us. The foundation of universal human rights is our common and inherent dignity as people. It has nothing to do with being a member of any particular ethnic or religious group, even if you happen to be the 99 percent majority, as Muslims are in Turkey.

It is the Turkish government’s responsibility, then, to protect these rights, including those of the tiny Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish minorities. In practice, this means government authorities should stop confiscating church property, refusing to give them legal status, and closing down their schools. Finally, it means the government should reflect in its own institutions a “proper secularization,” and together with religious leaders, reject any proposition that violence is a valid expression of religion.

My summary of the Pope’s message was not difficult to extract from his discourses.

About brotherhood, he said this:

“[…] the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny: God, our Creator and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham.” — November 28, in his speech in the presence of the head of religious affairs

About the obligation to defend universal human rights, Pope Benedict said this:

“Freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice, both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to the building up of society, in an attitude of authentic service, especially towards the most vulnerable and the poor.” — November 28, in his speech in the presence of the head of religious affairs

About the proper and separate roles of religion and government and the rejection of religiously-motivated violence, he said this:

“This assumes, of course, that religions do not seek to exercise direct political power, as that is not their province, and it also assumes that they utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of religion.” — November 28, in his speech to the international diplomatic corps in Turkey

I’ve been on other papal trips, and the feel of this one is very different.

The throngs of well-wishers that generally welcome a traveling Pope, even in non-Catholic countries, are conspicuously absent here. In their place are crowds of policemen and a Muslim population going about its business.

The feeling I get is that it’s not business as usual. This is a population of good-hearted people, who are listening and reflecting on what this brave and sometimes controversial pope has to say. They are comparing his words, now in an uncut form and a more melodious tone, to their cultural and religious heritage. In light of the new threats by radical Islam to the secular state and peaceful existence they have come to love, they are not indifferent. They watch the slaughter of their Muslim brothers across their eastern border, in Iraq, and the political drama on all sides — in Syria, Iran, and Palestine.

They may be looking to their pending entrance into the European Union as an economic life-saver, but as Muslims and as fellow members of the human race, they know life is not just about money, and precisely because of this, they have a hunch that the status quo is not enough.

The Turkish people, the Mideast, and all of us, are listening to the same lyrics and a different tune. It doesn’t sound so harsh after all.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. Tomorrow, I hope to write about a sit-down interview I did yesterday with Archbishop Demetrius, head of the Orthodox Church in America. He invited me to be with a small group of journalists later today when the Pope meets the Ecumenical Patriarch — the spiritual head of the world’s 280 million Orthodox Christians.

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