22nd May 2022

Europe should not turn its back on Turkey, Vatican envoy says

As thousands of Muslims protest against this week's visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey following his comments on Islam and Ankara's EU bid, the Vatican's chief spokesman in Istanbul tells EUobserver the Muslim country belongs in Europe and opposition towards it is based on fear of the unknown.

Over 25,000 people gathered in Istanbul on Sunday (26 November) in a demonstration against the visit by the leader of the Roman Catholic church starting in Ankara on Tuesday, shouting "Don't come, Pope!" - a statement also written on posters displayed throughout the city.

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  • The Pope's visit to Turkey has sparked protests (Photo: Wikipedia)

The country's Muslims were angered by a speech by the Pope in September in which he suggested a link between violence and Islam. His apology afterwards and Sunday's message of "esteem and sincere friendship" to the "beloved Turkish people" did little to quell the anger.

But Mons Georges Marovitch, the spokesman for the Vatican as well as for the tiny Catholic community in Turkey, estimated to number around 33,000 or 0.5 percent of the population, hopes that the Pope's visit will serve to heal the rifts.

"His previous statements were misunderstood and I'm sure that he will now find words of conciliation for those that have been hurt so that the dialogue between the two biggest religions is resumed as the world's peace depends on it," said Mons Marovitch.

On Ankara's EU membership - openly contended by cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope - Mons Marovitch said: "At the moment, any of us can and must admit that Turkey is not prepared to join the EU but to say a definite no would be a big mistake from Europe."

He added that the inter-cultural and inter-religious experience dating back to the Ottoman empire, as well as the core moral values of Islam being so close to Christianity mean that the country would be "a huge enrichment for Europe."

"In Istanbul, in the time when in Europe you couldn't imagine that a mosque or synagogue would be constructed, the Turks built a mosque, a church and a synagogue almost next to each other where people of all these religions could pray."

Mons Marovitch acknowledges that over time the freedoms of religious minorities have deteriorated, an issue also highlighted by the European Commission in a recent report on Turkey's progress towards membership of the EU.

But he says the EU membership process has triggered a series of positive changes that could significantly change the life of those minorities.

"We can recognize the fear of Turkey in Europe. But this fear is there because Europeans don't know Turkey well," Mons Marovitch points out, stressing that both concerns over an influx of economic immigrants and fear of Islam as a different religion can be challenged.

"If Europe helped Turkey's economy a bit to get on the same level as other European countries, I'm sure that no Turk would want to leave his country and go to Europe as Turkey is three times as big as Italy and twice as big as France and has many riches to give to its people."

"On the other hand, Islam as the different religion could also be enriching as many Europeans have lost some of their moral values and supported laws which are against the basic ideas of both of these monotheistic religions and which Turks as Muslims would never approve."

Mons Marovitch noted that many in Turkey actually oppose EU membership saying that instead of being "a last and looked-down-on van in the back" the country should become a "locomotive in a train consisting of Islamic countries."

"But if this happened, it would be a historic loss for Europe as it would mean that we would see an emergence of two camps that could easily end up standing in confrontation against each other."

"So it's better if Turkey became a bridge for dialogue and a bridge between these two diverse civilisations," he added.

EU Christian heritage

Mr Marovitch is aware that although he is referred to as the Vatican's representative in Istanbul, his views are not necessarily shared either in the Vatican or elsewhere Europe.

But he argues that they are well-known and are also shared in the Catholic community in Turkey, with other Christian denominations also expressing similar opinions.

"Of course I am not a politician," he says but he does not refrain from commenting on political issues such as the French law on denial of Armenian genocide in 1915, saying those French deputies who voted in favour "didn't know the problem."

"That bill is a result of a political discourse and I hope it will not pass through as it would be a big mistake. Turks themselves acknowledge that there was a massacre of Armenians but it was not genocide. In any case, we should let the historians deal with this not politicians."

Unlike some in Europe, he also disagrees that a future EU constitution needs to refer exclusively to the Christian religion and its values.

"The reference to such values is not as crucial as the values themselves and so we should be careful about the words that we are using but instead highlight the moral values that we have - and these we share with the Muslim community. And so for me, it would be better not to use such words," he said.

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