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RELIGION: EU Greets Ratzinger’s Election, Turkey Concerned

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Apr 20 2005 (IPS) - Europe has cautiously welcomed the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope, but there are also concerns over his view of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

Joy and jubilation were mixed with reactions of surprise and disappointment when the 78-year-old Cardinal Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals and defender of conservative orthodoxy for 24 years, was named Apr. 19 as Pope Jean Paul II’s successor.

The new pope, who will be known as Benedict XVI, is reckoned as a tough- minded enforcer of the ‘true faith’ and is firmly opposed to birth control and the ordination of women.

By choosing German-born Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s 115 cardinals opted for a strong Catholic conservative insider, but also a potentially controversial figure and an opponent of Turkey’s European Union (EU) membership bid.

Previously, Cardinal Ratzinger had stated that Turkey’s membership of the 25-nation bloc would cause a ”loss of wealth and culture”: He advises Muslim Turkey to seek alliance with other Islamic nations rather than the traditionally Christian EU.

European leaders and officials were swift to welcome Ratzinger’s appointment saying his election had a ”special significance” for Europe.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the nomination was ”a great honour” for his country, while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso ”rejoiced” at his choice.

”Personally, I rejoice at the conclave’s choice and remain convinced that your Holiness will pursue with determination and strength the work of (your) illustrious predecessor John Paul II in favour of understanding and peace in the world,” Barroso said shortly after Ratzinger’s election.

Wilfried Martens, president of the Christian Democrat European People’s Party in the European Parliament, said his group believed Ratzinger’s nomination would strengthen European unity.

”Your choice of the name Benedict is of very special significance for those of us who are working for reconciliation and cooperation among the peoples of Europe,” Martens said in a statement Wednesday.

”We see in your pontificate the potential to strengthen the European Union as a zone for peace and solidarity radiating a light of hope for the whole world”, he added.

However, reaction in Turkey has been far from warm as the country fears that the new pope’s opposition to Ankara joining the EU could raise fresh obstacles to its membership.

Outspoken Ratzinger has argued in the past that allowing Turkey to join the EU would be ”a huge mistake” that would run ”counter to history”.

”Turkey has always represented a different continent, in permanent contrast to Europe,” Ratzinger said during an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro last year.

Instead, he believes Turkey should seek its future in an association of Islamic nations rather than the EU, which has Christian roots.

He also called demands for European ”multiculturalism” as ”fleeing from what is one’s own”.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that he hopes the new pope will soften his stiff opposition to Turkey’s bid to join the bloc. The Turkish media declared him a foe of this predominantly Muslim nation.

”He has voiced such views (against Turkey’s EU membership) as his personal opinion in the past, but his rhetoric may change from now on,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.

”Responsibilities make for different situations. I hope to see such a change in the future because this post, this responsibility requires it,” he added.

The Turkish press also gave a cold welcome to the new head of the Catholic Church.

”The new pope is an opponent of Turkey,” the mass-selling daily Sabah said on its front-page, while the liberal daily Radikal said in a headline: ”He was Turkey’s last choice.”

”It would be bad news if Cardinal Ratzinger continues to hold his views as Pope Benedict XVI,” said commentator Selcuk Gultasli in the pro- government Zaman daily.

However Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank, said that as a Pope, Ratzinger’s views should not hamper Turkey’s bid to join the bloc.

”Ratzinger’s opposition to Turkey’s membership of the EU should not have an effect on the country’s bid to join the bloc. As a German cardinal he might have commented on such political issues. But as Pope he should be even more distant from politics,” he told IPS Wednesday.

Talks on Turkey’s membership of the EU are scheduled to start on Oct. 3. Turkey hopes to join the EU in 10 to 15 years.

Turkey, with a population of some 70 million Muslims, first applied for EU membership in 1963. Although it is widely acknowledged that it has made huge progress in political reforms in recent years, concerns remain about its commitment to implement laws banning torture and ensuring freedom of religion, and about consequences for the EU labour market.

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