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The end of the Vatican

Fred Halliday
5 December 2006

The four-day visit to Turkey of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on 28 November - 1 December 2006 was as redolent with dangerous (if unstated) meaning as it was overblown in media coverage. A truer understanding of the event requires a double interrogation: of the relationship between the pope and Turkey (and the wider Muslim world), and of the modern political role and impact of the Catholic church.

The concealment starts with media management. Against expectations, there were no massive demonstrations against the visit, far less an attempted assassination: instead, the 12 million people of Istanbul, who evinced little or no interest in the pope, were forced by their compliant state to walk hours to their places of work, while the world was treated by a complacent media to the message of peace and understanding supposedly promoted by his presence on their soil. That the Vatican refused any requests for interviews with the pope by Turkish papers indicates where its priorities lay.

The fact that this was the third visit by a pope to Turkey makes it less "historic" than often claimed, but it was indeed the most controversial - a fact owed less to rising Islamist sentiment in the country, or even the pope's prejudiced invocation of a medieval remark about Islam in his 12 September address at Regensburg, than to the broader religious-political agenda of which this trip and its sales-pitch were part.

A want of principle

The pope did not visit Turkey primarily to speak to Turks or Muslims, but to negotiate with the head of the Greek Orthodox church, Bartholomew I, one of several autonomous (or "autocephalous") leaders, in his case of the 250 million-strong world Orthodox community, and the nearest person Orthodox Christians have to a supreme religious leader. The visit was timed to coincide with the feast day of St Andrew, the patron saint of Orthodox Christians, 30 November.

Both sides made much of the need to bridge the theological gap between western and eastern Christianity; formalised in 1054, this revolves around the rival claims of Peter (as stipulated in the gospel according to St Matthew) and Andrew (named by the gospel of John) to be the "first apostle", successor of Christ and hence pope. But the theological undertow is a distraction: a commission to settle this very matter was set up in 1979 by Pope John Paul II and his then Orthodox counterpart Patriarch Demetrios has gone nowhere.

The nodal issue uniting pope and patriarch is more mundane: property. Both feel constrained by restrictions played by the Turkish government on buildings and land (not, as is sometimes claimed on "freedom of worship") and the Vatican has - via Berlin - in recent years used the European Union to put pressure on the Turks over this issue.

Meanwhile, behind the further distractive efforts to draw a line under the Regensburg speech lies evidence of Joseph Ratzinger's developed and long-expressed views on Muslims and Turks. His co-authored book, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam contains an elaborate critique of Islam and its intolerance, and he has frequently spoken out (in the unmistakable voice of rightwing opinion in his native Germany) against Turkish entry into the European Union.

The pope's spin-doctors tried to create the impression that he had changed his mind on the latter issue: but he himself said nothing on the matter, and the modification of view reported by the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - regarding, be it noted, the pope's favouring of closer relations between Turkey and "Europe", not the European Union - remains unconfirmed by any independent source.

This did not stop the diversionary balm from being poured, enough to allow well-disposed leaders and states in the Muslim world to claim a conversion. This, after all, was the very week when the EU indicated that it planned to halt discussions with Turkey on a range of issues where the latter was not complying with Brussels' wishes; no one seemed to care that the most important of these disputes, Cyprus, is - this time at least - in large measure the fault of Greek Cypriot chauvinist politicians and Orthodox bishops rather than of Turks.

But there was no robust criticism from Pope Benedict of his Orthodox interlocutors and of their filibustering counterparts in Nicosia. Nor - for a pontiff who often invokes an interest in peace - was there any reproach to his Turkish hosts for their intransigent, unitary (and very European) version of nationalism in relation to Kurdish aspirations in the east of the country.

The flexibility of principle is notable, and much of the outside world has failed to register it. The pope's real interest is not reconciliation with the Muslim world but the reinvigorated unity of Christians and the long-declared war against secularism and the legacy of the Enlightenment. At the same time he wants to recruit official Islam, be it senior clerics or moderate Islamist leaderships like the current Turkish government, in his campaign against the evils of secularism and Enlightenment.

Such tactical concerns underpin the choice of source in the notorious Regensburg speech, which quoted the Byzantine ruler Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425) denouncing Mohammed as bringing to the world only "the evil and the inhuman". A similar citation could easily have been drawn from a Christian writer of the period: Francis of Assisi, Nicolas de Cusa or the Catalan scholar of Islam, Raimon Llull. What is significant is the political nature of the choice: a crude appeal to the hurt memory of Orthodox Christians about the late days of their empire, before the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople in 1453.

But the ideological twists and turns involved in the papal visit to Turkey are less important than the Vatican's wider political project. Few, after all, ask: on what democratically or legally constituted authority do such potentates traverse the world at great public expense and inconvenience, to hold forth on matters of contemporary international politics? After all, the many issues in play these days between the Muslim world and the west - from oil prices to migration, from Iraq to Palestine - are not matters of theology, of faith, of the divine but of politics. Clerical figures have no more qualification to sermonise on these issues than politicians would to rule on the oneness of God, or where to hold hands in prayer.

The claim by clergy on politics, in short, is a fraud. What Joseph Ratzinger is engaged in, abetted by the complicity of those promoting a United Nations-sponsored "dialogue of civilisations", is a form of ideological land-grab. Nowhere is this clearer than in relations between Europe and the middle east.

The silences of dialogue

In this area, there are frequent invocations of the need for Europe and the Muslim world to learn from each other and engage in dialogue. What is far less recognised is the reality of the last two centuries: namely, the debate by writers in the Turkish world, the Arab world, Iran and points further east, on western values and political systems. This debate was not controlled by the clergy, but conducted by secular writers; hence the move by the pope and those like him to imply it has never taken place.

The influence of western ideas and political systems on Turkey can be traced from the French revolution, through the 19th-century liberalism that informed the Young Turk movement, to the forceful modernising programme that inspired Kemal Atatûrk in the 1920s and 1930s (the subject of Bernard Lewis great 1961 work, The Emergence of Modern Turkey). One of the founding principles of Ataturk's ideology, Kemalism (along with nationalism and populism) is laiklik (secularism) - from the French laic, precisely the enemy against which Ratzinger, Bartholomew and all the other robed patriarchs are fighting.

It is because the current Turkish government of Erdogan, which came to power in 2002, rejects this laiklik that it is such a favoured partner of the pope. Unfortunately, Erdogan has also positioned himself to be one of the two main interlocutors - along with the well-meaning Spanish government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero - of the "dialogue of civilisations". This idea, in principle not a bad one, has been hijacked by states as a weapon against secularism and universalism. Its main UN commission is presided over by the most unsuitable personage of Federico Mayor, a mediocre former Francoist minister who as head of Unesco blocked any attempts by that organisation to protest at the Iranian threat to kill the writer Salman Rushdie.

A greater enemy

To examine the motives of Joseph Ratzinger's Turkish foray, and of more general attempts to undermine secularism, is not, however, to get to the bottom of the papal outing to Turkey. For underneath all of these debates and statements is the acceptance and use by the world as a whole of another extraordinary imposture: namely that a collection of buildings in the centre of Rome, ruled by a gaggle of archaic and secretive clergy, and which in its daily workings corresponds in no way to any principles of democratic, gender-equal or transparent practice, which has no concept of accountability or freedom of speech, should be allowed to have the influence it has - should, indeed, be allowed to exist at all.

In recent years, under Ratzinger, and for years under his predecessor Karol Wojtyla, this overrated medieval entity has been allowed to play a role in formulating UN policy on matters of major import, notably birth control and use of condoms; it has also, in league with a peculiar and sexually repressive coalition of states (including the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) promoted policies that, if carried through, will lead to the unnecessary deaths of millions of people. For those looking for such an entity, this is indeed an "axis of evil".

The only solution to the pernicious and devious antics of Benedict XVI, his acolytes and allies, is to do even more than to challenge the claim of clergy and their leaders to take up political and social positions - it is to place in question the very legitimacy of the Vatican itself. The time has long past when this carbuncle had any right to be treated as a state and given the protection, for its diplomatic, ideological and money-laundering activities that it still enjoys. It would indeed be an excellent goal for reformers of global governance, and for proponents of global civil society, to set the eradication of the Vatican as one of their goals for their years to come.

If this cannot be done by international agreement between states, then other means of attaining this most desirable goal may be considered. The time may come when a mass mobilisation of secular and anti-clerical forces, drawn from across the world, is brought to Rome and simply occupies this anachronistic and pernicious entity; and in doing so abolishes the political and diplomatic authority of popes and cardinals, and turns the Vatican, its wealth and buildings, over to an international, secular, distributive society. It might be a change from demonstrating against the World Trade Organisation, and would target an organisation that has done far more harm on the global stage.

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