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Tensions Rise as Turkey Grapples with Papal Visit, Cyprus Showdown

September 21, 2006

By Christopher Deliso

The acquittal of a Turkish novelist on the charge of “insulting Turkishness’ was billed as a crucial step in proving to the EU that its only Muslim candidate will not backslide on human rights and freedom of speech reforms that are deemed crucial to any future Turkish membership in the bloc. However, far more serious issues remain unresolved between Turkey and the European bloc.

The major one is Cyprus, the divided Mediterranean island which has been partially occupied since a 1974 Turkish invasion. Despite strong criticism from outside powers, Turkey has never withdrawn its troops which cover one-third of the island, thus keeping the “Cyprus card” as a valuable bargaining chip with Europe and especially, Greece. The unresolved situation is now proving a headache, however, as the Greek and Cypriot governments — both EU members — demand that Turkey recognize the country before EU membership for the enormous Muslim country can ever be considered, according to the logic that if one wants to join a club, they should recognize all of the pre-existing members of said club.

Then there is the Pope. Was his recent invocation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor a calculated attempt to raise tensions in advance of a planned November visit? Despite his pleas to the contrary, it is hard to believe that Benedict XVI was completely unaware of the effect his statements about jihad would have on the Muslim world- and especially on Turkey, considering that lingering Turkish suspicions of Greek policy is still popularly referred to in Istanbul as “Byzantine games.’

The inevitable security warnings following the Papal statement have been aired by both Christians and Muslims. The famous would-be assassin of the late Pope John Paul II, Mehmet Ali Agca — someone who should know — recently warned the new Pope not to risk visiting Turkey.

In a bizarre coincidence, a recent Turkish novel about a sprawling conspiracy between US hawks eager to invade Iran, freemasons, Catholic hardliners and Islamic extremists to knock off the Pontiff is adding to the concerns. Reuters describes Yucel Kaya’s “The Assassination of the Pope” as follows:

“subtitled “Who will kill the Pope in Istanbul?’, his book tells of how intelligence agencies stir up Islamists in Turkey and Benedict survives a bomb attack made to look as if it is carried out by Tehran in order to spark a U.S. attack on Iran. The assassination attempt is also motivated by Opus Dei worries that the Pope’s visit will bring a rapprochement between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate based in Istanbul.”

All this has provided a welcome excuse for Christian Europe to knock Turkey off-balance in its bid to join the EU. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor today called into question Turkey’s inherent suitability for European Union membership, saying that “there may be another view that the mixture of cultures is not a good idea…  the question is for Europe: will the admission of Turkey to the EU be something that benefits a proper dialogue or integration of a large, predominantly Islamic country in a continent that, fundamentally, is Christian?”

Cyprus looms large over coming events as both the Greek Cypriot side and the Turkish government charge each other with obstructionism over the divided island. Southern, Greek-inhabited Cyprus was admitted into the EU in 2004, leaving the northern third out in the cold. Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, instead championing a so-called “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” that no other country in the world recognizes.

At a speech in front of the UN General Assembly, Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos accused Turkey of failing to satisfy EU obligations by refusing to open its ports to traffic from the Cypriot Republic. For its part, Greece has thrown its considerable weight behind the Cypriot side in the matter. Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis recently stated that Turkish recognition of Cyprus was a basic precondition for any future EU accession.

However, the Turkish position remains calcified. The Greek daily Kathimerini reported on Sept. 20 that, according to Greek diplomatic sources, “Ankara is toughening its tactics as regards Athens and has no intention of giving in to EU demands that it recognize Cyprus and open up its airports and harbors to Cypriot aircraft and vessels. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allegedly vowed to maintain Ankara’s rigid stance on Cyprus in general elections next spring.”

Indeed, according to Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Namik Tan, speaking in New York yesterday, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul’s meetings at the UN turned up no change in position: “Gul stressed that Turkey’s EU membership process should be kept apart from Cyprus issue.”

Ironically, from the point of view of the Pope’s Byzantine quote that started the whole recent religious fervor, the EU is pushing Turkey for action on an issue directly related to the country’s Byzantine legacy: the Halki Theological Seminary on the island of Halki (Heybeli in Turkish), which has been closed since 1973 and which is the theological lifeline for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Without trained priests passing through the seminary, the 1,700-year-old patriarchy will eventually be killed- something that not even the rampaging Turks were able to do in the 1453 sack of Constantinople.

Ironically, however, it was the Catholics, not the Muslims, who laid the foundations for the modern Turkish state they are now having to hold at arm’s length. The Crusades of the late 11th century, passing through Byzantine Anatolia, ruined the good relations between Byzantium and the still nomadic Turks, along with any possibility of assimilating the latter into a settled Christian society, as had been possible with the Slavs of the Balkans.

Further, the twin elements of greed and power caused the Catholic West to divert the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople in 1204. Under false pretenses, the Latins attacked and dismembered the Byzantine Empire, so that when the latter was finally able to overthrow the invaders 57 years later, it was in a much weakened state and unable to stop Muslim Turkish expansion, opening the door to an Ottoman Empire that would reach the limits of its power only at the gates of Vienna.

However, in his controversial citation of Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos, the Pope somehow left out such boring and incidental details. Devout Christians angered by the Muslim reaction to his comments would do well to remember the ironic context behind the Pope’s speech and its reaction from the Turks.

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