Pope John Paul II visited Turkey in late November 1979, little more than a year after his election as bishop of Rome. Pope Benedict XVI had to wait a little longer, but not much. He, like his predecessor, was present in Istanbul to celebrate with the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew I the feast (on 30 November) of St Andrew, the patron saint of the patriarchate of Constantinople, as Istanbul used to be called.
Even before Pope Benedict XVI was back home, the cardinal secretary of state (the papal prime minister) was hailing the four-day trip as a great success. On one level it has been. There were demonstrations before the pope went, as Turkish Muslims protested at the pope's allegedly disparaging remarks about Islam in his address at Regensburg University on 12 September 2006.
Demonstrations did not, however, mar the visit itself, and there were only small crowds on the streets to greet him. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, had let it be known he was to be away from Ankara, attending the Nato meeting in Latvia, while Benedict was in his country.
Erdogan's absence was widely interpreted as a snub, so he stayed home at least long enough to welcome the pope to Turkey during a brief meeting at the airport. Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who had attempted in 1981 to assassinate Pope John Paul, said from his Turkish prison that Benedict would be risking his life if he came. But there was no untoward event, though instead of the usual popemobile, Benedict was ferried from place to place hidden away in a bullet-proof convoy.
When Pope Benedict was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had expressed the view that Turkey should not be permitted to join the European Union. As pope, he has kept silent on that issue. Turkey's prime minister, after their meeting, said that Benedict had expressed his support for the country's entry. While there has been no formal confirmation of that from the Vatican, and a Turkish newspaper has said that Benedict's remarks had been exaggerated, at least those in the Turkish government promoting entry into the European Union will be pleased with the pope's message to the governor of Istanbul province as he left to fly back to Rome. "I am leaving part of my heart in Istanbul, in this magnificent city", he said; "Istanbul is a truly European city, a bridge between the west and Asia, to bring structures and organisations closer."
While in Istanbul, Benedict might have been expected to be impressed by Hagia Sophia (the "church of the holy wisdom") built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian, now turned into a museum. But he expressed particular appreciation of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque ("Blue Mosque"), which he visited with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. On their entry into the mosque the Grand Mufti paused to pray, and so apparently did the pope - facing towards Mecca, the Mufti noted afterwards. The papal pause was not exactly a prayer, the papal spokesman, (Jesuit) Father Federico Lombardi, said, rather spoiling the moment.
The pope did not apologise, nor indeed even directly refer to, his remarks in Regensburg. He did however make one important gesture. He referred to the act of an 11th-century predecessor, Pope Gregory VII, thanking a north African Muslim prince. It was a neat balancing of the more critical remarks of the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus that had raised such hackles among Muslims worldwide.
Michael Walsh is a writer and broadcaster. He was librarian at Heythrop College from 1972 to 2001. Among his books are The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History (Canterbury Press, 2003) and The Secret World of Opus Dei (HarperCollins, 2004)
Also by Michael Walsh in openDemocracy:
"Cutting the Vatican down to size" (5 April 2006)
"From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI" (20 April 2006)
"The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (20 September 2006)
Manuel II Palaeologus had ruled from Istanbul, in his day Constantinople. But before it was Constantinople it was Byzantium. The city on the Bosphorus had changed its name after it became, in 330, the capital of the eastern Roman empire. The emperor governed his empire from Constantinople until the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. By that time Byzantine emperors had survived their western equivalents by a millennium.
Byzantium had a proud history, and part of that history was the bishop of Constantinople, styled from the 6th century "ecumenical patriarch". The title was controversial. Adding "ecumenical", meaning "of the whole world", seemed to undermine the claim to universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. There were many skirmishes between the bishop in Constantinople, and the bishop in Rome, the one Greek, the other Latin. In 1054 the two churches divided finally, the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicating the bishop of Rome, and the bishop of Rome - or rather, the bishop of Rome's representative in Constantinople - excommunicating the ecumenical patriarch.
It had been the aspiration of Pope John Paul II to bring the two churches together once more. Benedict shares this wish. Although, in the wake of the Regensburg address, attention has focused on reconciliation with Islam, the pope's own agenda lay not in Ankara but in Istanbul, at the Phanar, the Vatican of the Greek Orthodox church.
His host was Patriarch Bartholomew I. Bartholomew was elected in October 1991, at the age of only 51. He is, therefore, still younger than Benedict despite his many years in office. He is a man open to ecumenism. He studied at the Ecumenical Institute near Geneva, in Munich, and did doctoral studies at the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome. But it was not for his ecumenism that he was chosen, rather because it was thought that, still relatively young and vigorous, he might put up more effective resistance to the pressure of the Turkish government. Though residing in Istanbul as head of the Greek Orthodox church, the number of his co-religionists there has dwindled into insignificance.
Theologically, reunion between Rome and the Orthodox is feasible. There are obstacles in the way, not least papal claims of primacy over the whole church, but those might possibly be resolved as so many of the - more problematic - differences between Rome and the Anglican communion have been resolved. There have been several attempts, now in the distant past, at reunion; in the 15th century an act of reunion was even signed, one which recognised papal primacy. But however much the upper echelons of the Orthodox might have wanted reunion for political reasons, it has failed because of the hostility of the lower clergy and the faithful.
The presence of the pope at the Phanar provided much-needed support for the patriarch. Bartholomew needed the visit of the Roman pontiff far more than Benedict needed the commitment of Bartholomew to ecumenical progress. And it is not just the Turkish government with which the Patriarch has to contend, but with other parts of the Orthodox world. Alexei, the patriarch of Moscow, (the "third Rome", after Rome itself and Constantinople), is presiding over a renaissance in the Russian Orthodox church, which on the one hand is becoming intensely nationalistic, while on the other it is vying with Constantinople for leadership of Orthodox Christians worldwide.
Before pope and patriarch parted they signed a joint declaration. "In Europe", it ran, "while remaining open to other religions and to their cultural contributions, we must unite our efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values". That is the sentiment that the Vatican wanted to see written into the preamble to ill-fated European constitution, which Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is proposing to revive.
The Vatican will say that the pope's visit to Turkey was pastoral and, at the Phanar, ecumenical. So it was, and it seemed at first to have allayed Turkish suspicions of the Vatican's stance towards their integration in Europe. But if so, the joint declaration may again have aroused them.
Get our weekly email