Saturday, December 9, 2006
Religion Meets Politics During Pope's Visit
By Harry Moskos
Of the Journal
Editor's Note: Harry Moskos took leave from the Albuquerque Journal to serve as public relations official for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during Pope Benedict XVI's recent visit to Istanbul. This is his final report on his trip.
ISTANBUL, Turkey It was a spontaneous gesture as they stood on a balcony. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew clasped Pope Benedict XVI's left hand in his right hand and raised their arms in a joint greeting to the faithful below.
The scene, captured by news photographers, created a historic image that flashed across the world from the courtyard of the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George where Benedict met with Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.
It was the first meeting of a pope and patriarch in Istanbul since 1979.
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches split in 1054 over political, cultural and religious matters, such as the wording of the creed and the issue of the infallibility of the pope.
It wasn't until 1964 that relations seriously began to improve when Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras first met in Jerusalem. They met again in both Istanbul and Rome.
Since then, there have been a series of meetings in a continuing effort to improve the dialogue between the two Christian bodies. It certainly won't be the last since Benedict extended an invitation for Bartholomew to visit the Vatican next year.
"We had a very good interaction," Bartholomew told this writer after Benedict concluded his four-day visit to Istanbul. "I hope this visit promotes more dialogue between two old churches and it leads to concrete steps."
I was there, as a journalist who happens to be Greek Orthodox, at the invitation of the Patriarchate to assist in handling media coverage. The Journal granted me leave to make the trip.
A strong link
It was obvious from those of us present that the pope and the patriarch hit it off.
"The pope is a very modest person," Bartholomew said. "I feel very happy, proud, grateful and with thanks first to God to the pope for this visit."
Bartholomew said he was thankful that Benedict was able to make the trip "under some difficult circumstances," an obvious reference to those upset by Benedict's recent remarks about Islam in a lecture at a German university.
Nevertheless, as a result of the patriarch's invitation, Benedict made his first journey to a Muslim nation since he became pope in 2005.
There is a strong apostolic link to the history of the churches. St. Peter is the first bishop of Rome and his brother, St. Andrew, established the church at Constantinople, now Istanbul.
History has been kinder to the Church of Rome than the Church of Constantinople, where Bartholomew's official title is Ecumenical Patriarch, Archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome.
Once a city with a million-plus Greek Orthodox Christians, the Greek population is now down to a mere 2,000 or so residents in a city of 12 million.
The Turkish government refuses to recognize the title "ecumenical patriarch" and refers to Bartholomew as only a local bishop.
The church's theological school on the island of Halki was closed by the Turkish government in 1971. Since then, other church property has been confiscated or heavily taxed.
Turkish law requires the patriarch be a Turkish citizen. This is an issue of concern with a declining Orthodox Christian population.
It contrasts with the average Turkish citizen, who is friendly, outgoing and courteous. One of the employees at the hotel we were staying commented, "We all have to learn how to love one another and get together."
The actions of the government, however, take a harder line.
Authorities threatened to close the Holy See/Ecumenical Patriarchate press office set up for the visiting media. What irked them was that the press credentials dared to use the word "ecumenical."
The day before the pope was to arrive, a platform was set up for a press conference to explain what would be going on. A request that a carpet be placed on the platform was denied by Turkish authorities who insisted the plywood flooring be left uncovered.
At the press conference, a Turkish journalist tried to create an issue by asking if the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the creation of an independent "patriarchal state," similar to the Vatican.
"There is no such idea," replied Archbishop Demetrios of America. "That the Ecumenical Patriarchate will be an independent state is a rumor."
At the Patriarchal Cathedral on the first night of the pope's visit, Istanbul police confiscated passports of about 150 Americans before they could enter the church and at the same time barred local residents and a tour group of 40 Greek visitors from entering the church.
One member of the Patriarchate's press liaison was threatened with arrest when he attempted to intervene after authorities denied a BBC television crew entry to the church, even though their names were on the government's approved list.
During the service, police ordered tour buses that brought visitors to the church to leave the area. After the services, parishioners had to walk two miles to their buses.
The same scenario played out the next morning when the feast day of St. Andrew was celebrated at the church.
But on the next morning, when Bartholomew made a reciprocal visit to attend the Papal Holy Mass at the Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul, there were no such restrictions no passports collected, no one kept out.
The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, came from Ankara for the occasion, but his remarks at a dinner on one night irritated many with a 15-minute speech on why Turkey is important to American interests.
"It was a speech for the Turkish Chamber of Commerce," was one comment heard. A few people walked out.
Wilson probably heard that comment, too, since he made another speech at a dinner two nights later in which he said:
"The ecumenical patriarch is a crucial link with this (Turkey's) country's past. There is a need for co-existence between Christians, Muslims, Jews and others."
He then said the U.S. government strongly supports the reopening of Halki and the return of church properties. Wilson also said, "we urge the acceptance of the title 'ecumenical.'"
This time Wilson received a standing ovation.
A desire for unity
The services at both churches showed a sincere bond between the pope and the patriarch.
Since there is no communion between the two churches, the pope did not concelebrate the services but was given a place of honor and did participate by reciting the Lord's Prayer, giving a homily and offering a common blessing.
Likewise, at the Catholic service, Bartholomew was given a place of honor, delivered a homily, exchanged the kiss of peace and participated with the pope in the dismissal prayer and blessing.
At both churches, they walked side-by-side with many parishioners expressing the desire for unity.
But it is not that easy.
While the pope is the head of his church, Bartholomew is the "first among equals" of 14 autocephalous Orthodox Christian churches.
As the pope was in Istanbul, the Turkish newspapers carried reports that Patriarch Alexii II of Moscow was saying all the patriarchs are equal and the news reports indicated he didn't share the same enthusiasm for the pope's visit.
For those of us who were there, it was uplifting to see the pope and the patriarch in the same church sharing 2,000 years of history.
If one were to ask, What was the accomplishment, with the problems the Ecumenical Patriarchate is facing with a hostile government? It is that the visit gave recognition to Orthodoxy as a worldwide church and to its ecumenical patriarch.