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John Paul II's visit sparked little interest in Turkey

On eve of Pope Francis's visit to Turkey Nov. 28-30, AA remembers John Paul II's 1979 visit in 2nd of a 4-part series on papal travel to Turkey.

John Paul II's visit sparked little interest in Turkey

By A. Humeyra Atilgan


"Traffic jams, not papal visit, of concern to Turks," read the New York Times headline on its article on the pope’s visit to Turkey.

John Paul II’s arrival in Turkey – he was the first pope to visit the capital, Ankara – aroused little fanfare.

"No jubilant flag-waving crowds were waiting for him," he New York Times reported. "The windswept tarmac was empty except for an honor guard of Turkish soldiers.”

The leader of the Catholic Church had been pope for a little over a year. Turkey was the fifth country he visited as pontiff.

Despite the fact that Turks largely ignored him, John Paul II’s first visit to a Muslim – or “Moslem” as the New York Times wrote it in 1979 -- country was anything but a sideshow.

As he knelt and kissed the ground -- as he would do in the 129 countries he would visit to become the most travelled pope in history -- Iran had undergone a cultural revolution and held 50 American hostages that it did not seem willing to release until the deposed Shah returned to Tehran for trial.

Previously, aboard his plane, the Times reported, the pope "seemed intent on discouraging any thought that he may be able to use the trip to make his influence felt in Teheran and to ease the fate of American hostages there or, generally, induce a calmer mood in the Islamic world."

The aim of his visit, he insisted, was “to seek further progress toward reuniting the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches” 12 years after Paul VI’s historic visit to Istanbul, renewing a dialogue that had disappeared for close to 900 years.

Still, while his meeting with the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodoxy in Istanbul marked another warming step in relations between both churches, tensions between Muslims and Christians were high.

“Although there are no allegations of persecution these days, there are complaints about discrimination” among Christians, the New York Times wrote.

The Pope acknowledged this as he appealed “for collaboration between Christians and Moslems and called on Christians to recognize the moral and religious values that Christianity and Islam have in common."

 “What we fear most of all is some new crisis in Greek-Turkish relations, because it could mean riots,” a Roman Catholic clergyman told the American newspaper. “And then all Christians are in the same boat.”

In 1979, tensions between Greece and Turkey were high.

Five years earlier, violence had erupted on the Mediterranean island amid a July 15 Greek Cypriot attempt to annex Cyprus to Greece. Ankara responded by sending 40,000 troops in the northern part of the island.

To this day, the island remains split in two.

Back then, the New York Times reported that Turkish officials raised the Cyprus issue “at length” with the pope.

One of those Turkish officials may have been Chief of General Staff Kenan Evren, who greeted him on the tarmac. 

This was the same man who would lead the brutal Sept. 12 Turkish coup d'etat just a year later -- a result of increasing violence between ultranationalists and communists that plagued the streets of Turkey's cities at the time of the pope’s visit.

This atmosphere of violence may have been the reason behind the "extra security" provided for the pontiff that was reported by the New York Times.

“One cause of concern was a threat to the pope by the self-confessed killer of an Istanbul newspaperman,” the paper said. "Ali Agca called the pontiff 'the masked leader of the crusades' and warned that if the visit were not canceled he would shoot the Roman Catholic leader.”

Mehmet Ali Agca would indeed fire four bullets into John Paul II on May 13, 1981, as the pope was riding through St Peter’s Square in the Vatican. He would be wounded in the abdomen, in his left hand and in the right arm.

Nearly 20 years later, John Paul II would forgive him

The gunman announced recently that he wanted to meet with Pope Francis during his visit to Turkey, from Friday through Sunday.

John Paul II, the first pope to visit a communist country, had always developed dialogue between faiths, nations, people -- and his visit to Turkey was no exception.

But his successor’s visit would prove more problematic.

Part 3 – 2006: Benedict XVI comes to Turkey. Coming Thursday.

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