Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Four (April 16): Meeting Surprising People

Today was a very busy day of meetings.

We started off by visiting the Journalists and Writers Association, one of the only organisations associated with the Gülen movement which is directly related to FetHullah Gülen himself, who acts as their honourary president. We met with the vice-President, Cemal Usak, who spoke very good English, with their Secretary General for Interreligious and Intercultural dialogue, and a number of young ladies who run women’s groups (none wearing scarves), including a young Christian girl from Paris who was doing some study with this group.

I had visited here before – the group act as a kind of meeting house/conference organiser for academics and journalists in Istanbul actively spreading the values taught by Fethullah Gülen. The introductions of our group took quite some time (perhaps at this point I should add that Dr Greg Barton of Monash University – Professor of Politics and director of the Centre for Islam in the Modern World – has also been with us for the last few days – he is leaving to go on the Gallipoli tour with Emre Celik when we head off for Rome).

Here is a taste of the discussion from my notes:

Ikebal Patel began by saying:

I never imagined myself even as a tourit in Istanbul, and now here I am sitting next to a Catholic bishop on a pilgrimage visiting a group like this.

When Greg Barton introduced himself as a Presbyterian in distinction from all these Catholics, Cemal commented that his closest friend at University converted from Islam to Christianity and is now the pastor of Istanbul’s Presbyterian congregation. “And we are still very good friends!”

Ismail Albayrak introduced himself by saying that he holds the Chair of Islamic Studies and Catholic Muslim Relations at ACU and how wonderful Australia is and how glad he is to live there. He went on to say:

I like my chair. And I am not afraid of an Australian Invansion. I am afraid of a Turkish invasion of my chair. So please keep away from my chair. I like my chair.

There was much laughter among the Australians at this. This prompted Bishop Prowse to comment that whenever a joke was made by one of the Australians, all the Australians laughed, and ONLY the Australians laughed, despite the fact that our hosts understood English very well. This demonstrated that despite the fact that, despite our very different cultural origins, we were all distinctively “Australian”. During the introductions, I mentioned that I was a blogger and Cemal said that made me an honorary member of the Writers and Journalists association.

I was surprised when Cemal raised the subject of what is often referred to as the “Armenian Problem”. This is a raw subject in Turkey, but one about which non-Turks tend to have quite definite opinions. If you don’t know what we are talking about, start by clicking the link and reading the Wikipedia entry. This is, I think, a question which honest historical inquiry will sort out eventually, but once again we come up against the two perspectives from which the narrative is told.

Cemal spoke of the post 1915 loss of religious and ethnic minorities – which he said were forced out by the “code of deportation”. Fatih said that technically it was not a deportation but a “relocation”. Cemal said that when he was a child it was common to use the following expressions as terms of abuse: “Son of a Greek / of an Armenian / of Moscow”. He said that the Writers and Journalists Association was working to change the negative image of these minorities into positive images. Negative perspectives and memories need to be replaced with positive perspectives and memories. Finally, he said, there was a need to move beyond dialogue to working together against common threats to religion. I think we would agree with this.

The conversation moved to the topic of the importance of relations with the media today – Cemal commented on the complete lack of religious affairs editors in the Turkish press. For instance, there is no one with Barney Zwartz’s role at The Age in Turkey. Speaking of The Age, Paul Ramage, the Editor of said newspaper, will be on the AIS Gallipoli tour which Emre Celik is leading later this next week, and on which Greg Barton (together with the Dean of his department at Monash) will also be going.

After our meeting at the Writers and Journalists Association, we walked around the block to the house in which Archbishop Angelo Roncalli – later John XXIII – lived while Papal Nuncio to Turkey prior to and during the Second World War. This house has a direct significance for us today on this pilgrimage. It is said that it was in this house – which is still used for the Papal Nuncio in Turkey (currently Archbishop Antonio Lucibello) – that Roncalli developed the idea of a new ecumenical council. Later, this idea came to a reality when Roncalli was elected Pope. It is directly because of that Council’s statement on the relation of the Church to other religions (Nostra Aetate 1965) that a pilgrimage such as ours has become a possibility more than sixty years later.

While walking to the house, we passed a school. The children saw us coming, and shouted out “Christians!” (all the clerics in our group were in clerical dress and Bishop Prowse was wearing his cassock with the purple trimmings). They came running in our direction and straight up to Bishop Prowse holding the palms of their hands in the air and saying “Christian Hi-5! Christian Hi-5!”. So Christopher “hi-5”-ed them to their great delight. There followed lots of photo opportunities with the bishop embracing the young children (for the record they initiated this – they wanted to touch and hold onto him).

When we reached the house, we were having our photographs taken outside with the house in the background and admiring the crest of Pope Benedict above the door. Now, also for the record, I had written to the Nuncio while planning this trip and had been told that unfortunately he would not be in Istanbul during our visit. He had referred us to the Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul, Bishop Louis Pelatre – who also was unable to meet us due to his involvement with the Ecumenical Patriarch’s celebration of Eastern Easter (by the way, a blessed Great Friday and Paschal Feast to all our Eastern readers at this point). So I imagine that he was as surprised as we were when lo and behold the door of the house opened and he stepped out to see 3 priests and a bishop and a bunch of people including Muslim women in head scarves on his doorstep. It turns out that he was just passing through Istanbul, and happened to be there at the very time we were.

Being an extremely affable Italian, he drew us inside and in a mixture of Italian and English welcomed us to the house and showed us into the chapel in which the prayer desk of Archbishop Roncalli stood still before the Blessed Sacrament and a portrait of Il Papa Roncalli together with a relic of the now Blessed John XXIII. He told us how happy he was to have been in Australia for World Youth Day. Yes, said Father Denis Stanley, it was wonderful, wasn’t it? “Not wonderful – terrifico!” replied Lucibello. He said that if he could be any other nationality in the world, he would like to be Australian. So free, so tolerant, so open and welcoming. Fatih, our “Young Turk” from Queensland, said “Why not be a Turkish citizen?” No, Australia is more tolerant, said the Archbishop. “Turkey is tolerant too,” said Fatih. “Australian, yes,” replied Lucibello, “Turkey…” at which he waggled his hand with fingers outstretched.” All this was done in the most affable manner with smiles and laughs all round, but I think a point was being made. It is hard to describe the effusive atmosphere in which this conversation was conducted. There was no animosity, only great friendliness, but, as the Archbishop himself said, dialogue has to be honest and truthful otherwise (and he used another Italian expression that Fr Denis had to translate) “Siamo fritti – we are fried”. In other words, we have to be engaged in honest and truthful dialogue for the sake of the future peace of the world.

Inside the chapel, he offered to give us his blessing together with Bishop Prowse. I immediately knelt down, but he picked me up and said “no, no, here we are moderno”! So we all said the Lord’s Prayer together in English – the Muslims also had their hands open in prayer during this – and then he and Christopher together gave us their blessing.

By this stage we were running very late for our next meeting, so we hurried back to the bus and drove a short distance to the offices of the Assyrian Catholic Church where we were greeted by Chorepiscopus (= Vicar General in Melburnian terms) Yusuf Sag. The Chorepiscopus and his wife have lived in Istanbul for 46 years. He ushered us into a very formal meeting room (Vatican style) which had one wall full of floral tributes that had been sent to the Assyrians for Easter – mostly (and he made a big point of this) from Muslim organisations in the city. He started the conversation in Arabic thinking that Ismail was an Arab, and then realised that Ismail was Turkish and swapped to that language. Ismail did a very good job, but then it soon became clear that the Chorepiscopus was a master of rhetoric via translation. He was a fireball of energy, using his hands and jumping up and down and making expressive noises with his mouth to illustrate his point – almost dancing around the room with energy as he spoke to us. His sense of humour and affability and welcome was even greater than that of the Nuncio. He said that he was due at three other meetings that morning, but nevertheless he prevailed upon us to stay and eat easter eggs and drink tea with him. He too had been to Australia for World Youth Day and was very happy to receive our invitation to return to the country – although he said for him it was a very long way to travel (us too, we pointed out). Then he got out his photo album and started handing it around, showing pictures of himself with local Muslim and other Christian and Jewish dignatories, and one of him hugging an aboriginal man in full coroborree paint during his WYD visit.

He talked to us about the importance of dialogue and of the importance of Easter. He spoke of Fethullah Gülen with great admiration for his work.

Ikebal began addressing Mons. Sag by saying “Thank you for your welcome. You remind me of my late father, who also spoke from the heart and with his feet”. The resemblance must have been very strong because Ikebal was becoming noticeably moved. Sag picked up on this immediately and said with great emphasis: “Your father is now in heaven, and the work you are doing here on earth is for his benefit.” (I am told that this was a reference to a Muslim idea that we can help increase the benefits of those in Paradise by our good deeds here on earth.) After a little while, Ikebal was able to ask the question he had intended to ask. He wanted the Monsignor to elaborate on a comment he had made earlier that “we must not cheat others in Interreligious dialogue.”

To this Mons Sag said: “I know we do not believe the same” – he went on for a while explaining the difference between Muslims and Christians regarding the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus – “BUT despite these differences, I say Amen! to your almsgiving and Amen! to your fasting and Amen! to THIS Pilgrimage.”

There was a funny moment when it came to serving tea. The man who was serving tea for us had brought in the wrong saucers for the tea glasses – metal ones instead of glass ones. The Monsignor uttered something in Arabic and jumped up and left the room coming back with the glass saucers and started to hand them out. According to those among us who understood what he said, he had said (with a great smile and not in any way intended to hurt or insult) “Has your brain shrunk even more since the last time we had visitors?” Then to us “I love him very much, but he is the cross I have to bear! I will do it myself.”

The meeting ended in a most extraordinary way: Monsignor Sag invited us all to pray together. We stood together and opened our hands in prayer as he led us in the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic. He then gave a powerful nudge to Ikebal Patel and prompted him by beginning beginning to say the 1st Surah of the Koran. Ikebal was too surprised to respond, so Ismail took up the hint and led the group in the recitation of this Surah of praise also in Arabic. This demonstrated that he was quite used to praying together with Muslims, offering authentic Christian prayer for them, and inviting them to offer authentic Muslim prayer for us. In case th?s ?dea shocks you, here ?s the text of the F?rst Surah for you to cons?der

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds. The compassionate, the merciful. Master of Judgment Day. You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help. Guide us to the straight path. The path of those whom You have favored. Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.

After leaving the Assyrians, we went down to the Golden Horn where we had a fish dinner at a Restaurant on the bridge crossing the water. We then went to the office of the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. This is a government run administrative office which overlooks and controls all the imams of Istanbul (some many hundreds). We were ushered into an office a little like the Oval Office but full of armchairs and sofas for us to sit on and drink tea with the Mufti. As it turned out the Grand Mufti was not available, and so we were met by his deputy, who assured us that he spoke with the full authority of the Grand Mufti when he was not present. A greater contrast with the two men with whom we had just passed the morning could not be found. His address to us (in translation) was very formal and had no spiritual content. Max asked a few questions about the Common Word statement of the 138 signatories (among whom the Grand Mufti of Istanbul was a key signatory). It became evident that the deputy had little knowledge of this document, for instance he spoke as if it was addressed only to Pope Benedict (in fact, it was addressed to all Christian leaders), and as if Pope Benedict was a powerful leader of the Christians (by which he meant the West) and which was aimed at ending Christian war against the Muslims. One can, in charity, assume that this Mufti’s competence was more in administration than in theology.

Following this meeting, we went to the Suleymaniye Mosque – the second largest mosque in Turkey and the largest in Istanbul. I had been in this mosque before and found it quite overwhelming, but unfortunately for the first time visitors among us it was under restoration and most of the interior was boarded up and filled with scaffolding. It was being prepared for 2010 in which Istanbul will be the UN “Cultural Capital of the World”.

Getting out of that spot was difficult for the bus due to the narrow streets and the parked cars and the traffic jam, but Jan once again displayed that he could drive a bus through the eye of a needle and got us out without a scratch.

A long drive took us out to Fatih University, a private university which I had visited on my first time in Istanbul. Here we met for conversation with four or five of the leading academics of the University. They were quite fluent in English, and we were well represented with University professors, so the conversation was very in depth and very fruitful. One of the professors has already been collaborating on a publication with Prof. Greg Barton (formerly mentioned).

The University is technically called a “foundation” university, that is, it is a completely financed by private funding. The director explained that in Turkey you cannot have a religious public university (ACU on the other hand IS a public university). He explained Gülen’s philosophy that Muslims should not only run madrassas and Koranic schools, but also schools in secular subjects. We can learn from both the book of revelation and the book of Creation (very similar to Christian teaching in this respect) and that Allah is pleased not only with religious activity but honest and dutiful fulfillment of secular callings (very much like St Maria Escriva on this one). The result, he said, is that a devout Muslim can be engaged in business and secular activity – “he doesn’t have to live in poverty.” Gülen thus inspired a kind of renewal that encouraged secular engagement while still emphasising care for others and for the world.

Someone asked whether Gülen also spoke about equality. There was some discussion on this. Bishop Prowse noted that we had the professor of ethics present with us and asked what ways Christians and Muslims can cooperate in ethical projects. The professor replied that her thesis was on David Hume’s ethical philosophy, and that there could be an ethic that was not based on religion. This could allow believers and non believers to agree on a common ethic of good and evil. It sounded a little like our “natural law” teaching. Nevertheless, said another professor, all ethics must have a religious basis. This lecturer said the same thing as Bishop Prowse last night: that we had look beyond our narrow perspectives to find the perspective of God.

Heba took this deeper by saying that she wanted to see interfaith relations moving beyond mere words into deeper engagement in social issues and social justice. Ikebal reminded us of a question that was asked by a uni student at the interfaith forum with Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald at WYD. The discussion became quite serious and involved at this point, going on to models of interfaith engagement. Zuhleyah used the image of baking a cake – there are ingredients that are needed like education and dialogue, but also special flavourings to give it texture and flavour like nuts and spices. Then we needed patience while the cake was baking in the oven before we could eat it. Quite a good analogy, I think.

We then had dinner at the University, and finally travelled home. We arrived home at about 8:30pm – which would have been early if it were not for the fact that we had to pack to leave at 5:30am the next morning to catch our plane to Konya. I had to answer a heap of emails in relation to our Rome end of the pilgrimage, and by then it was much too late to post the blog update for the day. So I am writing this in the biting wind of central Turkey outside the tomb of Rumi the mystical Sufi poet, while the Friday prayers are going on over the loud speaker in the mosque behind me. I now have to go to get some lunch before rejoining the team for the rest of our activity.

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1 Response to Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Four (April 16): Meeting Surprising People

  1. Ikebal Patel says:


    I finally found the time to read this blog. What an excellent and honest record of events.

    Good on you and thanks.


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