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A papal reversal on Turkey's EU bid? Not so fast November 29, 2006

A front-page headline story in today's New York Times announces that Pope Benedict XVI endorsed Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union. If accurate, that story would show a complete reversal of the Pontiff's position. But is it entirely accurate?

After meeting briefly with the Pope at the airport outside Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters about the Pope's new position. According to Erdogan, as quoted by the Times: "He said, ‘You know we don’t have a political role, but we wish for Turkey’s entry into the EU.'"

Notice: The announcement came from the Turkish premier. The Pope himself made no public statement on the topic. In fact, Benedict XVI has not spoken on that subject since his election to the papacy in April 2005.

The Pope's last public comments on Turkey's aspirations for EU membership were made in September 2004, when he was speaking not as Roman Pontiff but as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. At that time, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro he remarked that Turkey's Islamic culture put the country "in permanent contrast to Europe." To date, he explained, the European Union has been composed of nations that share a common Christian cultural background. Expanding the EU to include Turkey, he said, "would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of the cultural for the benefit of the economic."

The force of those words was not lost on Turkey's government leaders. Last year, when the newly elected Pope indicated a desire to visit Turkey, to join the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew for the feast of St. Andrew, Turkish authorities declined to approve the visit. Better to wait a year, they told the Pontiff. There was little doubt, either in Ankara or in Rome, that the rebuff was an expression of pique over the Pope's earlier comments.

Still, from the time of his election as Pope, Benedict remained silent about the Turkish application. As he prepared for this week's visit, and questions about EU membership were raised again and again, his silence became conspicuous.

Was there any hint about the Vatican's position on Turkey's application, then? Yes, there was.

On November 27, the day before the Pope began his visit, the director of the Vatican press office addressed the issue directly, in an interview with Turkish journalists. Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, said since that Turkey's application was a political issue, the Holy See would not take a stand. However, he added, it would make sense for Turkey to join the EU, if— and note this condition carefully— if the Turkish government met the usual standards for EU membership, on questions such as human rights and religious freedom.

Just hours after Father Lombardi made that statement, the Pope reportedly told Prime Minister Erdogan that although the Vatican will not take any formal stand, he would "wish for Turkey’s entry into the EU." If he did make such a statement— and remember, we have only Erdogan's word for it— the Pontiff would certainly not have made it unconditionally. Consistent with the statements he has made and the policies he has followed throughout his pontificate, he would have added the same sort of conditional clause that Father Lombardi had used, insisting on Turkish adherence to European norms on human rights. The Turkish premier, in all likelihood, was passing along only a portion of the Pope's message.

If the Pope really did intend a significant shift in the Vatican stance, why wouldn't he make the announcement himself? The New York Times has a plausible explanation:

Because Benedict did not announce his new position himself on Tuesday, the shift appeared to some degree to be a concession won by Mr. Erdogan— a deft act of diplomacy…

Just one week ago, Prime Minister Erdogan was not expected to meet with Pope Benedict; his government had explained that the Turkish leader would be in Latvia, for a conference of NATO ministers. Although the Vatican did its best to downplay the significance of the prime minister's absence, the snub was clearly a source of irritation.

Then at the eleventh hour, Erdogan rather suddenly announced that he would be able to meet the Pontiff after all, thanks to a change in his own travel schedule. In retrospect, that reverse-field on the part of the Turkish leader could be seen as the result of some informal haggling. The Pope would get his formal airport welcome; the prime minister would get an opportunity to suggest papal endorsement for his EU application.

So now Prime Minister Erdogan claims that he has the Pope's backing, but in fact the Pope still has not spoken. The Vatican can still argue, plausibly and consistently, that Turkey must fulfill all the human-rights standards embraced by the European Union. And during the remaining days of his visit, Pope Benedict can continue to drive home the message that a truly democratic nation respects the religious freedom of its people.

In context that papal message— which the Holy Father delivered repeatedly during the 1st day of his trip— can now be seen as a diplomatic reminder. The Holy See will look with favor on Turkey's bid for EU membership: IF….

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