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VATICAN LETTER Feb-10-2006 (930 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Turkish troubles: Vatican works to reinforce Christian-Muslim harmony

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The killing of an Italian missionary priest has raised fears that Turkey, long one of the more moderate Muslim countries, could become a new home for Islamic fanaticism.

Father Andrea Santoro, 60, was murdered in his church by a youth who yelled "Allahu akbar" ("Allah is great") before firing his gun, according to church officials in Turkey.

The slaying deeply troubled Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, who will travel to Turkey Nov. 28-30 on what was originally designed as a visit to the Orthodox Christian community.

Now, the pope has additional tasks on his agenda: reinforcing Christian-Muslim harmony in the country and explaining to the Turkish people why Christian evangelization does not pose a threat to their culture.

It was unclear whether the priest's accused killer was influenced by the widespread outrage and demonstrations by Muslims over publication of European newspaper cartoons that satirize the prophet Mohammed.

The Vatican had criticized the cartoons, saying freedom of expression does not mean freedom to ridicule religious beliefs. But one of the problems the Vatican faces is that, whatever its public statements, the church is identified by many Muslims with the West.

If the cartoons were indeed a motive in the slaying, it would be seen as a tragic irony that the church should pay in blood for what, in the Vatican's view, was an expression of anti-religious secularism.

"Every time tension is created between the Islamic world and the West, it is always the Christians who pay. Although they belong to a community older than Islam, Christians are always depicted as a long arm of the West," Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of the missionary news agency AsiaNews, said in an editorial on the priest's slaying.

In reacting to the killing, the Vatican has shunned the kind of rhetoric that has poured from the Italian political scene. One government minister, Roberto Calderoli, said Pope Benedict, like popes of old, should assemble a coalition capable of "defeating the Islamic emergency."

It is precisely that kind of Crusader talk the Vatican wants to avoid. Instead, church officials and Turkish civil authorities have moved quickly to underline the isolated nature of the killing and to take steps to ensure fanaticism doesn't gain a foothold.

On Feb. 9, Turkish bishops met in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the situation of the minority Catholic community and celebrate Mass in honor of Father Santoro. They were joined by Orthodox and Muslim leaders, who asked to be present in a sign of solidarity.

A Turkish deputy minister went on TV to appeal for calm, saying the Quran would never sanction the killing of a "man of God" in a church. Other government officials emphasized that the killing was a single act by a fundamentalist fanatic.

Turkish newspapers, however, have reported anti-Christian incidents in the northeastern area of Turkey where Father Santoro worked. Some of the activity has been attributed by authorities to the "Gray Wolves," a shadowy ultranationalist organization that once had as a member Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.

In another worrisome sign, church officials said that Feb. 9 a missionary priest from Slovenia was roughed up and threatened by a group of men who shouted: "We will kill all you Christians!"

Father Adriano Franchini, a Capuchin who has worked for 25 years in Turkey, said most Muslim Turks practice religious tolerance. But Islamic fringe groups have emerged, and their newspapers have recently fomented hatred against the West, reminding people of the history of the Crusades and describing interreligious dialogue as "a Vatican trap," Father Franchini told the Vatican news agency Fides.

Some found it hard to believe the murder was religiously motivated.

"Personally, I am shocked. In my experience, Turkey is a country of tolerance, especially toward Christians. Christians and Muslims have been living there together for centuries," said Serafettin Paktas, one of a small group of Turkish Muslims studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Turkey's secular government, which has cracked down on any public expression of Islamic fundamentalism, has good reasons to make sure militants do not gain influence in the country.

For one thing, Turkey is seeking admission into the European Union. Before his election, the pope spoke out against Turkish membership, saying it did not make historical sense; since he became pope, however, church officials have made it clear the Vatican is neutral on the question of Turkey's bid for EU admission.

Perhaps mindful that the killing has raised European doubts, Turkish officials assigned a round-the-clock police escort to Bishop Luigi Padovese of Anatolia and were preparing to do the same for other bishops and Catholic priests, at least for the short term.

That's not what the church really wants, according to the apostolic nuncio in Turkey, Archbishop Antonio Lucibello. Traveling with armed guards is not the way to conduct the low-profile evangelization necessary in a place like Turkey.

Unlike some other commentators, the Vatican has avoided casting the tragedy in terms of a "clash of civilizations," recognizing that a paradigm of conflict may be easy to invoke but is ultimately unhelpful.

Instead, Vatican officials are waiting for the current controversies to calm down so they can get back to the patient and largely hidden work of dialogue, especially in the months leading up to the papal trip.

When the pope arrives in Turkey in November, he will no doubt remember Father Santoro -- not as a fallen hero in a global cultural-religious war but as a silent witness of the Gospel.


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