Pope Benedict XVI has called for the Roman Catholic Church to be given legal recognition in Muslim-majority but politically secular Turkey, which has faced criticism of its treatment of religious minorities as it seeks to become a member of the European Union - writes Luigi Sandri.
Receiving Kenan Gürsoy, the new Turkish ambassador to the Vatican, on 7 January 2009, Pope Benedict said that Catholics appreciated the freedom of worship, "guaranteed by the constitution" in Turkey. However, he added that "civil juridical recognition" would help the church, "to enjoy full religious freedom and to make an even greater contribution to society."
About 99 per cent of Turkey's 77-million people are Muslim. The Catholic Church there has 32,000 members.
A November 2009 "progress report" by the European Commission on Turkey's possible membership of the European Union said that in the country, "Non-Muslim communities - as organised structures of religious groups - still face problems due to lack of legal personality."
Non-Muslim religious communities in Turkey have also reported, "frequent discrimination and administrative uncertainty" regarding places of worship, the commission's report noted.
In April 2009, Bishop Luigi Padovese, the president of Turkey's Catholic bishops' conference, said that local parishes faced "great difficulties" in the some parts of the country.
"Officially, the Catholic Church does not exist here since we are not recognised as a minority," Italian-born Padovese stated. "We have insisted that legal recognition would not in any way endanger the secular character of the Turkish republic, but there are many things still to be done before Turkey can be said to ensure religious freedom and pluralism."
In his address to Turkey's new ambassador to the Vatican, Pope Benedict noted, "As a secular democratic state that straddles the boundary between Europe and Asia, Turkey is well placed to act as a bridge between Islam and the West, and to make a significant contribution to the effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East."
In 2006, during a visit by the Pope to Turkey, the Turkish prime minister reported that Benedict supported the idea of Turkey joining the EU. Before becoming Pope, Benedict had expressed strong opposition to EU membership for Turkey.
In Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is a spiritual leader from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has his headquarters in Istanbul. Other Christian communities include Armenian and Syrian Orthodox churches.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]