Pope Benedict’s visit considered gesture of support for the Phanar

The pope’s visit to the seat of the Orthodox Church is taking place during a period when the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Christians living in Turkey are facing a daily struggle for their human rights and religious freedom. The Turkish authorities have questioned the ecumenical character of the Patriarchate and have refused to accord it legal status. Property owned by non-Muslim communities has been seized under summary procedures. Meanwhile, the Orthodox seminary of Halki has been kept closed for 34 years. It is considered certain that both the pope – whose reservations with regard to a future for Turkey in the European Union are well known – and the patriarch are to take every opportunity to reiterate the need for the peaceful coexistence of nations, religions and cultures. The text of the proclamation to be signed by the two leaders on Thursday afternoon at the Patriarchate is expected to be in the same spirit. Apart from issues concerning relations between the two churches and their desire for reconciliation, the proclamation is also expected to refer to the need for cooperation in confronting problems such as violence, terrorism, religious intolerance, war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. They will have at least two private meetings, but their every move will be recorded by about 1,000 journalists from around the world. Pope Benedict’s visit to the Phanar is not simply a token of respect from the Roman Catholic to the Orthodox Church but a clear show of support for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. During preparations for the pope’s visit to Istanbul, Vatican officials had to deal with various «difficulties» and «bureaucratic» demands ranging from the personage who should welcome the pope at Istanbul airport for the «private» section of the visit, as Turkish officials are calling it – to instructions that the pope not sit in the same car as the Patriarch. The pope’s two predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II had faced similar problems on trips to Turkey. Nevertheless, their visits to the Phanar and their talks with Patriarch Athenagoras and Demetrios came to be considered milestones in the two churches’ course toward reconciliation.

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