BY CAROL GLATZ
POPE BENEDICT XVI has encouraged the government of Turkey to do all it can to help end longstanding conflicts in the region.
In a speech welcoming Kenan Gürsoy, Turkey’s new ambassador to the Holy See, the Pope said: “Territorial disputes and ethnic rivalries can only be satisfactorily resolved when the legitimate aspirations of each party are duly taken into account, past injustices acknowledged and, when possible, repaired.” The Pope said that Turkey, a secular democratic country that straddles Europe and Asia, “is well placed to act as a bridge between Islam and the West, and to make a significant contribution to the effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East”.
Pope Benedict also asked that Turkey grant full legal recognition to the Catholic Church. While Turkish Catholics enjoy religious freedom, he said, the Church as a whole “is waiting for civil juridical recognition” under Turkish law.
“This would help her to enjoy full religious freedom and to make an even greater contribution to society,” the Pope said.
The lack of legal status has sometimes made it difficult for the Catholic Church and other Christian communities in Turkey to own and buy property officially and to build or operate churches, schools and hospitals.
The Pope recalled his visit to Turkey in 2006, noting that it was his first visit as Pope to a predominately Muslim country.
He said: “I was glad to be able to express my esteem for Muslims and to reiterate the commitment of the Catholic Church to carry forward interreligious dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect and friendship, bearing joint witness to the firm faith in God that characterises Christians and Muslims.” He said it was his great hope that dialogue would “lead to greater trust between individuals, communities and peoples, especially in the troubled areas of the Middle East”.
The ambassador assured the Pope of Turkey’s commitment to regional peace and security and said Europe would greatly benefit culturally, economically and politically from having Turkey as a member of the European Union.
Turkey became an EU candidate country in 1999 and has undertaken reforms to improve its human rights record and strengthen its democracy. It was able to begin accession talks with the European Union in 2005 and negotiations are expected to take about 10 years.
Months before his election as Pope then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed grave doubts over the wisdom of allowing Turkey to join the European Union, citing cultural and religious differences. Since his election the Vatican has made clear it is neutral on the question of Turkey’s EU membership. Turkey’s population is 99.8 per cent Muslim, and restrictions on the practice of Christianity still exist.