By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNS) -- Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said he hopes Pope Benedict XVI's November trip to Turkey will help calm recent tensions with Islam and advance his church's struggle for religious rights.
Patriarch Bartholomew, meeting with a group of reporters at his headquarters in Istanbul Sept. 28, said the visit also would underline the pope's commitment to ecumenical dialogue at a time when Catholic-Orthodox theological talks are resuming.
The 67-year-old patriarch acknowledged that the pope's recent speech in Regensburg, Germany, had caused problems with Muslims in Turkey and elsewhere, but he said that only intensified the importance of the upcoming papal visit.
"It's an opportunity to cultivate dialogue and to remove misunderstandings. The circumstances at this moment make this visit more interesting, more necessary and more important than at any other moment," he said.
He said Orthodox Christians are not looking to cultivate conflict and "don't want to offend the Prophet of our Muslim brothers." He also said he was convinced the pope did not want to offend Islam, either.
The fact that the Turkish government did not try to postpone the papal visit after the Regensburg controversy was a good sign, he added. Turkish Christians generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority, he said.
"In general, the pope is awaited in Turkey with joy and love," he said. He added that he was certain the government would take all necessary security measures to guarantee the pope's safety during the visit.
Patriarch Bartholomew met with reporters the day after the European Union pressed the Turkish government to take several steps to respect the rights of religious minorities. Turkey is trying to enter the European Union, and Orthodox church officials are hoping that process will help expand religious freedom in the country.
The patriarch said he expects the pope to raise the issue of religious rights when he visits Istanbul at the end of November.
"The pope always underlines the principles of religious freedom and human rights ... which are valid principles for democratic societies. So I think the pope in his sermon here will speak not only in favor of Catholics but in favor of all religious minorities," he said.
"We represent something like .01 percent of the population -- practically nothing -- and we are in no way a threat. We want nothing more than our rights," he said.
One long-standing request by the Orthodox church is for permission to reopen a centuries-old theological school on the Turkish island of Heybeli. It was closed by authorities in 1971 as part of a general decree against private religious colleges.
"We absolutely need to be able to train new priests and theologians to continue our work, which is not only in favor of the Orthodox church but is for the good of humanity," he said.
Patriarch Bartholomew also has asked for Turkey to change a law that requires the head of the ecumenical patriarchate to have Turkish citizenship.
The ecumenical patriarch is considered the "first among equals" among Orthodox bishops. He has the power to propose a pan-Orthodox synod of bishops and to invite the other Orthodox churches to join in common action.
The patriarchate has a number of other grievances against the government concerning confiscated property, and the government has essentially ignored repeated attempts to resolve them, he said.
Patriarch Bartholomew said Christians hope that Turkey's request to enter the European Union would make these problems disappear "one after another."
"Europe is asking our government to respect these principles and rights, which is something that a democratic, lay government should do," he said.
The patriarch said the papal visit will come at a moment of renewed hope for Catholic-Orthodox relations, following a successful meeting of theological experts from both churches after a six-year interruption.
"Pope Benedict has demonstrated his respect and love for the Christian East, even immediately after his election, and he has wanted to promote the continuation of this theological dialogue," he said.
What happens next depends on "the good will, the Christian courage and the sincerity of all parties in the dialogue," he said.
"In the coming years, we hope and pray that through the grace of God we will have concrete steps forward," he said.
The patriarch said the recent theological encounter in Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, opened the way for a discussion on papal primacy, long considered one of the most difficult ecumenical issues.
Metropolitan John of Pergamon, Orthodox co-chairman of the international Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue commission, told the reporters that Orthodox representatives to the dialogue have somewhat divergent views on papal primacy. Because they represent 15 Orthodox churches, he said, they do not feel they have to assume a unified position.
"Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is more disciplined, more organized, more obedient. We are more ...," he said, pausing to find the right word.
"Democratic," Patriarch Bartholomew said with a laugh, completing his sentence for him.
Ecumenical Patriarch Hopes Pope's Turkey Trip Calms Tensions with Islam
By John Thavis