It’s so nice to see the Roman pontiff and the spiritual head of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians getting along together after that nasty tiff back in the eleventh century. Now if only we can get Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan to end their little cat fight, the world can breathe easy again.
Still, the historic rivalry between the eastern and western branches of Christendom was apparent on Thursday when Pope Benedict XVI joined Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul to celebrate the Orthodox divine liturgy at the patriarchal church of Saint George, a modest structure compared to the opulence of Saint Peter’s and the Vatican. Bartholomew certainly outshone Benedict in the vestment department. I mean, just look at that hat and those sleeves!
I imagine Bartholomew was trying to compensate for his more humble digs. He must have felt that by donning his ecclesiastical finery he could draw attention away from the fact that the patriarchal complex in Istanbul’s Phanar (Fener in Turkish) district sits in the middle of what is pretty much a Turkish slum. Back in the summer of 2000 when I visited, it was pretty ghetto. It didn’t look to me like gentrification was right around the corner. Perhaps a Starbucks has opened up since then.
In all seriousness, Benedict’s visit to Turkey has been enormously controversial, sparking protests among many Turkish nationalists who are still seething over his comments back in March when he quoted the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos who said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by sword the faith he preached.” On Wednesday a group of 40 nationalists briefly occupied the Haghia Sophia in opposition to the pope’s planned visit to the 6th-century church turned mosque turned museum, once the spiritual center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The protesters, members of the Great Unity party, were later detained by the police.
Some in Turkey have argued that Benedict has no business praying in the Haghia Sophia, and that doing so would be an affront to Turkish sensibilities, since any religious gesture would be interpreted as a Christian claim on the edifice, which became a museum in 1935 as part of Atatürk’s campaign to secularize modern Turkey.
“The risk is that Benedict will send Turkey’s Muslims and much of the Islamic world into paroxysms of fury if there is any perception that the Pope is trying to re-appropriate a Christian centre that fell to Muslims,” said an editorial in Turkey’s independent Vatan newspaper on Sunday. Pope Paul VI’s decision to drop to his knees in prayer when he visited the museum in 1967 shocked his Turkish onlookers.
This baffles me in light of the fact that Benedict joined Mustafa Cagrici, Istanbul’s chief cleric, in prayer at the Blue Mosque on Thursday. Why is Benedict allowed to pray at the Blue Mosque, but not the Haghia Sophia? It’s difficult for me to understand why some Turks would be offended by prayer at the Haghia Sophia, since one could just as easily claim that the pope’s decision to pray in the Blue Mosque shows that the Christian West has designs on that building as well. Such an interpretation would be ridiculous, but to me it’s equally ridiculous to ascribe any political meaning whatsoever to a brief prayer inside the Haghia Sophia. After all, it is an awe-inspiring structure.
It’s not as if the Vatican requested to hold mass there. That would probably piss off Istanbul’s Greek minority as much as it would Turkey’s ultra-nationalists.