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In Turkey, the Church Officially Does Not Exist

In June Benedict XVI became the first pope to visit Cyprus, a nation that has been divided by acute religious and ethnic strife for the past thirty-six years. The north is occupied by ethnic Turkish Muslims while the south remains predominately Greek Orthodox, making the island a terrain of demarcation and conflict between Christianity and Islam. The Holy Father approached this sensitive trip with the simple agenda of strengthening ecumenical relations between Catholic and Orthodox believers. Though the Pope also addressed the plight of Christians living as religious minorities in Muslim-dominated lands of the Middle East, he intended — and succeeded — in remaining above the volatile political fray.

Unfortunately, the Pope’s historic visit was overshadowed by the gruesome murder of Bishop Luigi Pa­do­vese, an Italian Capuchin who had served as the Vatican’s representative in eastern Turkey since 2004. He was also the president of the Turkish bishops’ conference. The 63-year-old missionary was stabbed to death and then decapitated outside his summer home in the Mediterranean seaside town of Iskenderun, close to the Syrian border in southern Turkey. His chauffeur, a 26-year-old Muslim who was assigned to the bishop by the Turkish government four years ago, was arrested the same day.

As is common in connection with stories like this, the attacker was said to have psychological problems. “Fixating on mental illness as a possible cause for the attack,” Robert Spencer explained at his JihadWatch.com blog, “allows the media to ignore any and all others — especially anything involving Islam.” And that is exactly what happened in this case. Turkish police officials were quick to rule out any political or religious motives, saying that the bishop’s driver, Murat Altun, was suffering from severe depression, and that he had recently been released from a psychiatric ward. The implication: The bishop’s murder was nothing more than senseless violence perpetrated at the hands of a lunatic who had a bad-hair day.

Italian officials followed suit. “We have no reason to believe that the homicide had a political motivation,” an official at the Italian embassy in Ankara told The New York Times (June 3). Vatican diplomats were careful to avoid friction with Turkey and with Islam in general. Before having confirmed the facts at hand, they convinced the Holy Father to immediately and preemptively rule out any possibility that the slaying of Bishop Padovese had political or religious motivations. The murder, the Pope told reporters on the plane from Rome to Cyprus, was “certainly not a political or religious murder but rather a personal affair.”

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