The Pope’s press conference on the way back from Turkey gives us some important insights into what went on behind the scenes of his visit. The speeches are all out in the open, of course, and published, but the private conversations might really be what really counts in this context.
First of all, what went on between the Pope and the President of Turkey, Mr Erdogan? As we know, the President and his civil servant who runs religious affairs in Turkey, brought up the question of Islamophobia in the West, which they see as an important problem, and, moreover, one that the Pope can do something about. The Pope seemingly countered this with a challenge to the Muslim world, that they should do more to condemn terrorism. That is something that we have heard many a time. The Pope tells us that he sincerely believes that not all Muslims are terrorists just as he believes that not all Christians are fundamentalists, and that every religion contains “these little groups”. This of course reveals a difficulty. Yes, of course there are fundamentalists on both sides. Syria is full of Islamic fundamentalists, as is Iraq; Alabama and Mississippi are full of Christian fundamentalists. But these two types of fundamentalism are not comparable. And is ISIS a “little group”? Are the Taliban? Again, is there a single Christian fundamentalist group that actually controls a swathe of territory anywhere on earth and coerces those who do not agree with it?
All this is important, because the Turkish government allows ISIS to import arms and people into Syria through Turkish territory. It stands by and watches while ISIS and the Kurds fight it out in Kobane. If Turkey is to be a bridge of understanding between East and West, this seems a pretty strange way of going about it. I doubt the Turks care for ISIS overmuch, but they hate Assad and the Kurds the more; any conversation that Pope had with Erdogan was overshadowed by the reality of politics in the Middle East. Moreover, the Turks, like others, seem wedded to the position that there is a moral equivalence between Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms. If that is the case, and I think it is, then they were given a pass by the Pope.
Then there was the Armenian question, and in particular the question of the Armenian Genocide, the hundredth anniversary of which falls next year. Again, this was seemingly raised by the Pope, but from what he says in the plane, one gets the distinct impression that Mr Erdogan did not give an inch, and neither is the Pope prepared to push him further. This is a huge pity. It will come as a major disappointment to all Armenians and all Catholic Armenians in particular. It will disappoint all those who feel, such as myself, that there can be no justice without truth and that the Armenians are victims of a continuing historical injustice. It will disappoint many Turks, those disenchanted with Mr Erdogan, too.
Finally, there is what went on behind the scenes at the Patriarchate in the Phanar. The Pope makes reference to those “conservatives” on both sides, Catholics and Orthodox, who are “resistant to ecumenism”, that is, I assume, opposed to a rapprochement between the Churches. This may well be diplomatic, but it is also rather misleading. I personally cannot think of a single Catholic bishop, conservative or not, who has spoken in public about the lack of desirability of better relations with the Orthodox. If there is one, then please point him out to me. To imply that there are Catholics who do not want closer relations with Orthodoxy and indeed re-union, is simply untrue. So, why did the Pope imply it?
The remarks the Pope made on the plane are perplexing. The President of Turkey may well feel that he has scored a major success, thanks to this visit. It has enabled him to forget for a few moments the increasing criticism he faces at home and abroad, and given him an opportunity to meet the Pope and pose as a respected statesman. To put it crudely, it legitimises him. But what is in it for the Catholic Church, I wonder.