The Holy See and Turkey

Tue, Aug 5th 2014, 13:51 Last updated on 5/8/14

Fr Konrad Grech, SJ, Valletta.

offline
Times of Malta

I would like to clarify three points with reference to Mr S. Shafi's letter "The Vatican and Turkey" (The Sunday Times, July 30).

It is a common mistake to refer to the Apostolic See of Rome: the Institutes of the Roman Curia, the Secretariat of State, the Congregations and the Tribunals at the service of the Roman Pontiff, as "the Vatican".

The proper term to use is the "Holy See", which, as a juridical person recognised internationally, enjoys full membership or observer status of international bodies such as, the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Vatican City State, a sui generis rather than a "religious state" exists so that the Pope and his universal pastoral authority is guaranteed total independence from other states or governments - an outcome of the 'Roman Question' solved by the Lateran Pacts of the 1929 between Italy and the Holy See.

It is also a mistaken assumption to say that the Holy See is against Turkey joining the European Union. In an interview with the Turin newspaper La Stampa (November 1, 2004) Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States, clarified that the Holy See does not have an official position on Turkey's entry to the EU, and considers that the decision must be made according to EU rules, "in the case of adherence, Turkey must satisfy all the political criteria set forth at the Copenhagen Summit in December 2002."

And "these criteria", continued the Archbishop, "include the complete guarantee of human rights as well as full individual and corporate religious freedom, "founded on the dignity of man".

Finally, "The Holy See is not afraid of an enlargement of Europe. It is critical that the New Europe have profound inner cohesion". In addressing the new Turkish ambassador to the Holy See, Mr Altan Guven, on December 6, 1997, Pope John Paul II had acknowledged the aspirations of Turkish citizens to "a fuller integration into the European family of nations".

And to Ambassador Osman Durak, on February 23, 2004, the Pope had stated: "I am pleased to note that the Constitution of the Republic (Turkey) recognises this freedom of conscience, as well as freedom of religion, worship and instruction... as Turkey prepares to establish new relations with Europe, I join the Catholic population in looking forward to recognition on the part of the Turkish authorities and institutions of the Church's juridical status in your country. In no way does the Church seek special privileges or preferential treatment for herself; rather she simply insists that the fundamental human rights of her members be respected and that Catholics be free to exercise those rights".

A third carification. Individual cardinals within the boundaries of their respective competences enjoy the freedom of thought and speech and may reflect on a variety of current issues - including the European project in its wider perspective.

In his reflection on Europe's Christian identity, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had stated that bringing Turkey into the EU would put European culture at risk. "Turkey always represented another continent throughout history, in permanent contrast with Europe", so to equate the two continents "would be a mistake. Europe is united by its "culture which gives it a common identity. The roots which formed this continent are those of Christianity." (Le Figaro, August 13, 2004). The cardinal simply stated a historical fact. One need only briefly recall the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, the Balkans, Greece, the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Lepanto in 1571, the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Paradoxically the Ottoman Empire was throughout the centuries a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious conglomeration of nations.

Cardinal Kasper, on the other hand, pointed out that "It is not the right moment for Turkey to join the European Union. Turkey must change many things and it is not just a question of laws but of mentality, and you can't change mentality in one day". The cardinal argued that the barriers to religious freedom in Turkey were cultural as well as legal, and would therefore take a long time to overcome. The cardinal did not say that Turkey should not join the European Union. He said it is not "the right moment".

My own interpretation is that it is not enough for the Turkish state to achieve the Herculean feat of the full implementation of the EU acquis and adherence to the Copenhagen criteria. The grassroot mentality needs to be transformed. And just as Europe, though secularised, is still "culturally" Christian and is somehow influenced by Christianity, so is Turkey influenced by Islam. Even if the Turkish state is a secular one, the Turkish people and their forma mentis have Islam as their wellspring. Islam gave them their identity. There is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of about Europe's mainly Christian roots either. The EU being a Christian club is a worn-out cliché just as the phrase a secularised Turkey is an overstated mantra.

Europe and Christianity experienced centuries of trial, terror, error and conflict to arrive at the legalised recognition of the principle of freedom of religion. And this is why it has become "something essential, a foundation of European culture". Unfortunately, the principle of "reciprocity" is not practised in its totality by the Turkish state. The present evolution in European-Turkish relations, however, is a chance and an opportunity to overcome centuries-old fears and prejudices. Maybe the reflection which Pope Benedict XVI gave to the Muslim community in Cologne on August 20, 2005, would help to transform the mentality of both European and Turkish peoples.

Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that mutual respect and understanding have not always been the hallmark of Christian-Muslim relations. The memory of these events ought to fill all with shame and the lessons of the past should help to avoid the same errors.

"We want to find the paths to reconciliation and learn how to live respecting the identity of the other. The defence of religious freedom is a continuous imperative and the respect for minorities an undiscussed sign of civilisation". The Pope also pointed out that the Church wanted to continue to build bridges of friendship among the followers of every religion, as well as the responsibility of teaching new generations to face the new challenges.

May the peoples of Europe and Turkey eventually learn how to appreciate this advice. Authentically human values which both the EU and Turkey strive for, are built on truth and the recognition of the deepest identity and aspirations of nations and peoples, and not solely around a negotiating table and from a state's legislative texts, crucial as these may be.