Monthly Archives: April 2009

Back on line

Dear Readers,

We have been offline at St Gregory’s since arriving in Rome, but this morning have obtained connectivity. Stay tuned for more updates on the Roman end of our trip!

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Catholic Muslim Pilgrimage – Day 7 (19 April): “O What a Lovely Morning!”

That was Bishop Prowse’s comment as the Christian delegation made its way back from its outing to mass this morning. Let me tell you about it.

At Breakfast, I greeted everyone with a cheery “Happy Easter!” It took a while to dawn on everyone that it was Easter Sunday in the East – ie. here. “Happy Divine Mercy Sunday”, responded Bishop Prowse. “If you are in Poland, my Lord”, I responded. “No, no, it is a universal feast”, he said. “I didn’t know we had cancelled the Second Sunday of Easter,” said Fr John Pearce.

We Christians got on the bus to travel to the Cathedral of St Esprit (ie. the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit) at 8am. On the way, Denis led us in Morning Prayer. I led the song, since I had the text of the traditional carol for the Sunday after Easter, O Filii et Filiae, on my iPAQ. All nine verses with the others on the bus joinging in on the Alleluia chorus.

We arrived outside a high wall with iron gates with the papal crest on them. Otherwise there was no sign that what was inside was a Church. Inside we entered a large courtyard with a larger than life statue of the hapless worker for peace, Benedict XV (who reigned during the First World War and received no thanks for his efforts to broker peace between the warring parties). I bought a few trinkets – cloth icons of St Paul for the children and a very nice rosary bracelet for myself, which I asked Bishop Prowse to bless later on over lunch.

We met the head of the Salesian Order that has lived there since 1903, and then went inside the Church. By chance, the Apostolic Vicar, Bishop Louis Pelatre, was present. I had written to him before the Pilgrimage and received an answer (in French) to say that he would not be able to meet with us because he would be at the Fanar with the Ecumenical Patriarch for the Easter celebrations today. However, it turned out that he had a special French pilgrimage group for whom he had agreed to say mass at the odd time of 8:50am. So our bishop and priests arranged to say mass with him (or at least Fr John Dupuche said mass while the others participated silently). Fr John read the readings in French also. Bishop Pelatre was not able to stay with us to greet us afterwards as he was in a great hurry for his appointment at Fanar. Bishop Prowse stayed to greet the English congregation gathering for 9:30am mass – mostly Filipino and African workers, but a few Americans and one or two Australians.

We then prevailed upon our guide Kadir to take us to the Church of Our Saviour in the Country – known usually as “The Chora“. This church, of ancient origin, was rebuilt in 10th Century, and restored in the 13th. Although used as a mosque in the Ottoman period, many amazing mosaics and fresco icons survive. Today, of course, it is a museum.

This is a truly breathtaking church, which gives us some idea of what Sancta Sophia might have been like in its hey day. Few of the mosaics in the interior of the Church remain but the two narthexes are richly decorated with story cycles from the life of Christ, and a side narthex has the most stunning icons of the harrowing of hell.

I had not come here on my first trip to Istanbul in 2007, and our local guide, Kadir, was unaware of its existence. Yet there was a good sized crowd of tourists about. We were lucky to have Anne and Anita with us to alert us to the necessity of making this visit, which will truly linger as a high point of the pilgrimage. I must say that I felt very sad to be in this Church and to see the damage that it had suffered during its conversion into a mosque. I wanted to sing the “Rorate Coeli” inside (but did not have the words) as I think that it is a suitable lament for this building, especially these verses (originally refering to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem):

Do not be very angry, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever: thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation: our holy and our beautiful house where our fathers praised you.
2. We have sinned & are become as one unclean: and we have fallen as a faded leaf: and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. You have hidden your face far from us: and have consumed us because of our iniquities.

Outside, I bought some bookmark souveniers, and sat with the others for a cup of sahlep (which we really must import into Melbourne coffee houses).

Arriving back at the hotel, I had ten minutes to do some laundry and get back on the bus to go out with the whole group (the Muslims had spent the morning at the local Haman – the Turkish baths) for our cruise on the Bosphorus. We had a quick lunch of pide sandwiches, and then climbed on board our own private charted boat. It was a calm and pleasant day – not too hot nor sunny – and we all had a chance to relax and have some fun. Sunday in Istanbul sees everyone coming out of their houses in family groups to gather in the parks along the shore – many of them fishing for their lunches or dinners. At least one vestige of our Christian heritage survives in Turkey – the celebration of this weekly day of rest!

Later on, when we were on the tram travelling to the Topkapi palace, Albert demonstrated his knowledge of the criminal classes by picking the back pack of a member of our team. With great ease he opened the zips and pulled out the passport without him feeling a thing. When the poor victim discovered his loss, he naturally went into a panic, but Heba had mercy on him and told him Albert had it. A good warning for taking care once we get to Rome!

As we were getting off the boat, I commented to Orhan that I had a sore backside from sitting in the bus so much over the last week, and that in Rome, the pain would shift to our feet as we walked just about everywhere. He responded that he would rather have pain in his backside than in his feet, to which I responded “Yes, maybe, but there has never been a saying about something being a pain in the foot.”

We made our way to the Palace only to find that they were already closing for the day. At first we negotiated that we could get into the Church of Holy Peace (Hagia Eirene), the oldest Church in Constantinople and the scene of the Second Ecumenical Council, the First Council of Constantinople (I don’t know if the Second Council of Constantinople was held in this church in 553 – do you?), but then we were told we would have to come back in the morning for this too.

Waiting outside for the bus to arrive, the muezzins started the afternoon call to prayer. One of the Muslims said that it was strange that the call was coming from one of the minarets of Hagia Sophia. Then we noticed that there were men entering a small door on the building attached to the side of the Church. Intrigued, we entered and found a small mosque with men praying in it. Others entered, including the rest of our Muslim delegation, and then an imam came out to lead the prayers. Our own Prof. Ismail led the chanting of the Koran. We stood at the back and quietly observed the prayer after the manner of Benedict XVI. Some Christians in our group, however, found the idea of Muslim prayer taking place in this ancient place of Christian worship a little too painful – especially considering that it is not possible for us to have Christian prayer in this great Church. Upon further inquiry, however, we discovered that these rooms were not a part of the original Church, but a later Ottoman addition which was the Carriage House and arrival point of the Sultan for prayer in the Aya Sophia Mosque. There were extra rooms into which we were shown that have yet to be restored, adjoining and entering into the main building. Apparently about 20 years ago, there was a strong push from Muslims in the community for the whole building to be returned to its previous use as Mosque. Refusing this request, the Government granted a compromise that they could use this extension for a prayer room. Would it not be a great guesture, I proposed, if Christians too had a prayer room on the site somewhere? Some of the Muslims said, Ah, but remember Cordoba – while others readily agreed that such an action would show that that Turkey was truly ready to embrace religious freedom as a prerequisite for entry into the EU. Something to think about. Most were skeptical of the idea, but I said that we could dream of the future and then let God do what he willed in his own time.

For dinner tonight we split into three groups and went to private homes. A group comprising Orhan, Mustafa, Ikebal, Stewart and Charlotte, Denis, John and myself ate at the home of Ismail and Layla Citak. Ismail owns a chain of kebab stores in South East Asia. From their fourth story appartment building we had a wonderful view of the Marmara Sea. Ismail is a leading member of PASIAD (our hosts) and had visited Melbourne recently with his wife on one of Mehmet Ali Sengul’s visits. I was especially interested by a drink that they served us: fermented “purple carrot” (beetroot?) juice with hot chillis in it. Fermented? Yes, apparently this is allowed as long as no alcohol forms. I thought that alcohol begins forming the moment something starts fermenting, but apparently I am wrong.

It was the usual strange arrangement (strange to us, anyway) where the women do not eat with the men, and the man of the house waits on us at the table. Charlotte spent her time with the women eating in the kitchen. Ismail Citak eventually joined us and the discussion turned to the kebab business and sourcing halal meat. Ikebal said that this is a real problem in Australia as many of the companies claiming to sell halal meat are not properly halal or halal at all. He sees this as a major trade issue for Australia in selling halal meat overseas as well as at home. Denis asked questions about what it meant to be “clean” in Islam, and the practice of taking shoes off to pray in the mosque. Was there any symbolic spiritual meaning to this? Apparently not, except that it allowed for one to pray in a clean place. What about clean and unclean food? Then we got onto a discussion of the history of the way in which the laws against (for eg.) eating pork were relaxed in the Christian religion.

The time to go home and pack came quickly. We said our farewells and then waited for the bus to pick us up. At the hotel, while packing, Max and I ordered a small bottle of red wine (spelled “whine” on the drinks list). I did whine a bit at both the cost (10 euros = $20 for a half bottle) and the quality of the wine. If this is what was generally drunk in Eastern lands, no wonder the Muslim religion banned it! My Muslim friends thought this a good joke, and wondered what would have happened if Australian red wine had been readily available in 7th Century Arabia.

We sat on the terrace and smoked as we checked our emails and wrote letters etc. (blogged in my case). Everyone is coming down with colds on the trip – we blame Mehmet who had it first, but it was to be expected. Tomorrow we fly to Rome in the Afternoon, and then I take over as organiser of the pilgrimage. A daunting prospect, but one for which I have been preparing for 12 months, and intensely so in the last 3 months.

Time to go to bed and get some rest now. Gwenda is threating to take my batteries out!


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Catholic Muslim Pilgrimage – Day 6 (18 April): “I’m going back again to Istanbul…”

We were actually woken at 4:15am to catch the plane for Istandbul. We had to go through several bag checks at the airport, and I was sick of this, so I put a lot of my hand luggage, including my camera, into the checkin so I didn’t have to carry it.

Back in Istanbul at dawn, Jan (our bus driver) drove us to our breakfast at an education centre run by the Gulen Movement. At the Hagia Sophia we ran into a traffic jam due to works on the tramline. Jan backed out and went on a long circuit back to the same point from another direction, and got through by actually driving down the tram line, past the works and out the other side. He is a genius!

At the education centre, we were fed breakfast in an upstairs canteen. This is an interesting idea. Downstairs in this centre, there was a lecture going on with a famour Sufi teacher. There was also an extensive bookstore for the publishing company Tughra books. The canteen is to provide the people who come to the education centre with a meal before the lectures. This seems to me to parallel the Workers Associations that were so common in the 19th and early 20th Centuries among Catholics.

After breakfast, we were introduced to our host Hakan Yesilova, the Senior editor of the magazine The Fountain. He spoke excellent English, which allowed us to engage fully with him. He introduced us to Dr Mehmet Ergene, the author of a book which we were all given called “Tradition Witnessing the Modern Age: An Analysis of the Gulen Movement”. Dr Ergene did not speak any English, so Hakan translated for him. You can read much of the book here at this link.

We are able to question Dr Ergene and Hakan about this book and about the Gulen Movement in depth. In many ways, this book illustrates some of the difficulties we have in understanding what this movement is about and in the ways in which the Movement itself fails to totally connect with the western ways of scholarly thinking. The translation, for instance, is a committee job and that has not produced the greatest result. On top of that, it is clear that most of the western ideas and western history with which the book tries to engage has been gained through secondary sources, not all of them accurate. For example if you follow the link above and read pages 66ff, you will find that it (like much of Gulen’s own work) subscribes to a view of the relationship between the Church and science that is far from accurate or just to the Church’s role in the development of science in the Western context. I hope that this ignorance of the true place of the Catholic Church in the history of Western civilisation might be corrected at least a little by the next leg of our pilgrimage to Rome.

Nevertheless it is also true that Gulen is on about many things that Benedict XVI has addressed, such as the compatibility of reason and faith. For instance, there is quotation from Gulen on a page not included in the Google books extract in which Gulen laments the almost complete lack of metaphysical knowledge and understanding in modern Western rationalism which seems to deny the very soul of the human person. I believe that the language barrier is largely to blame for the fact that Gulen and his disciples are unaware of the ally they might have in the Holy Father for their goals and aims.

Despite the weaknesses of this book from a scholarly point of view, it is never the less the most complete treatment of Gulen that I have yet found. It is one book that will be coming back with me to Australia, despite the addition to the luggage weight.

At the end of the session the others looked through the bookshop while I went to the bus to get my camera out to take some photographs of the stunning views of the Topakai Palace from the room in which our session was held. When I opened my bag, I found no camera. “Is gone!” as Manuel would say. Somewhere in transit between Konya and Istanbul someone in the airport luggage handling had helped themselves to my (actually, the Commission’s) camera. Stolen. Gone. Finito. Thank God/Allah that I had downloaded all my photos the night before, despite being very tired.

I called the QBE insurance office in Australia to report the loss. They said that they had logged the report, and that all I needed to make a claim when I returned to Australia was a police report. I consoled myself that we needed a new camera for the Commission anyway – the old Kodak now being woefully outdated and taking inferior pictures especially indoors. I thought too that I might be able to pick up a new camera cheaper in Istanbul than back home.

We returned to the hotel for some 2 hours of “free time”, but I spent it in the following activities:

1) Visit to the police station with Jan. This was an interesting experience. At the door was a policeman in military like uniform with a semiautomatic machine gun. He took an instant dislike to Jan for some reason and spoke agressively to him (all in Turkish – no English so I had no idea what was happening other than it was not good). Jan tried to explain that I needed a police report but all he got in return was more agro. Eventually, virtually at the point of a gun, we were turned away. Jan instantly got onto his mobile phone to Orhan. Just walk away, I thought. Jan has it all in control…

2) Jan took me to a post office to buy stamps for the girls. The office was as unlike any Australia Post outlet as it could possibly be. It was completely bare of any sign or decoration or poster or anything for sale. There was only one small poster on the wall with a set of the latest stamps (showing scenes of Istanbul) for sale. I pointed to this and asked if I could have two of them. No, they don’t sell those here. In the end, the provided me with only two different kinds of stamps (one with a mosque on it) so I bought two of each. They did not have enough change so gave me what they had. Only a lira or two short…

3) then a short visit to a pharmacy to pick up cold and flu tablets – yes, my worst fears are now coming true and I am coming down with something just as I have to take over the organisation of the Pilgrimage in Rome…

4) Back at the Hotel, Orhan explained to me that from his conversations on the phone with the police, he had ascertained that the Police report could only be obtained in the place of the theft – ie. Konya. Great. “Don’t worry, my friend, we will sort it out”. I am sure he will. He has the determination to get this sort of thing done.

5) back in our room, Max pointed out that we had a large private balcony with full sunshine. Yippee! a chance to get some washing done. So I washed all my dirty clothing in the shower basin and hung it out with my travel clothes line and coat hangers.

6) finally, a shower, a shave, and I was ready to go with the rest of the gang to the Gulen Movement inspired TV station on the Asian side of the city.

When we dropped the others off, our guide, Kadir, and his brother-in-law, took me in his little Renault to a camera shop to buy a new camera. Travelling in a car in Istanbul traffic is even more exciting than travelling by bus, especially when your driver is using one hand to talk on his mobile phone! When we got to the shop, I went straight in and found the camera I wanted to buy. It was just like the one Cathy and I had recently purchased at home, but was listed at 745TL. Given the almost equal exchange rate, I thought this a bit pricey, so I used their internet connection to look up what the camera cost back in Melbourne. Discount Cameral Warehouse had it listed for $335. So, no new camera in Istanbul. Not to worry, as Greg Barton had offered to loan me a spare camera he had brought along “just in case” for the rest of the trip. This will be an opportunity to visit Greg when I return for a cup of coffee at his office in Monash and a catch up. So all that is sorted too.

After the TV station (where everyone was having a lot of fun in the studios pretending to be on national Turkish TV), we travelled to the headquarters of the Fountain publishing group high up on a hill overlooking the city. Here were were met by Hakan once again, and shown over their library and other facilities. Again there was an opportunity to engage with questions about the movement – this time directly with Hakan himself. He was able to answer a lot of our questions, such that Bishop Prowse said “That man is really good.” I discovered too that this trip is a lot different from my previous visit to the same centre, as the Muslims amongst us knew exactly what questions to ask in order to increase our understanding of the Gulen Movement.

After this visit we went for dinner to a private house nearby on a hill overlooking the Bosphurus. I had visited this home two years ago for the same purpose. Then it belonged to a dried fruit and nut merchant who was a supporter of the Movement. Unfortunately this lovely and dignified gentleman had passed away last year, but the four storey villa was now in the hands of his two sons and their families. I wish I had my camera when I arrived, because the house was guarded by a “small bear” as Emre (who was now with us, having flown in from Melbourne just a few hours before) called the German Shepherd chained, and barking and snarling at us as we entered. It reminded me of a certain policeman I had recently encountered… The next dog on guard was a smaller version, another German Shepherd, not quite as agro as the first. Then there was a boxer who yapped at us from his kennel, finally followed by a little spaniel who sat quietly waiting to be patted. The young boy of the family informed later that this dog was called “Hund” (the boy likes to practice his German!). The whole thing reminded me of the Hans Christian Anderson story of the Tinderbox, but only in reverse.

The meal was delightful, with many fine and exotic dried fruits for dessert. The family was especially honoured to welcome Christopher – I doubt they had ever met a bishop before let alone had one in their house as a guest. We returned happy and relaxed to our lodging for the night. All sensible people when straight to bed, but I did the usual thing of checking emails and writing the blog. Bed time now, before they lock the door of the terrace on me.


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Catholic Muslim Pilgrimage – Day 5 (17 April): Ruminating on Rumi

We were up at a truly ungodly hour of 4:45am after I had only gotten to bed at 1:30am. Talk about burning the candle at both ends. Our pilgrimage now took us on a detour to Konya – biblical Iconium – after a flight of about one hour. Konya is on a plain surrounded by mountains (some of them with snow on them) in central Turkey.

We had breakfast at a boy’s college after arriving in Konya, at which all the students were on a full scholarship. They must have scored a 480 or more out of 500 in the national exams. The college is funded by charitable giving from Muslims, part of their duty as Muslims (Zakat). Fatih said that he was a scholarship student, but that his father probably gave three times as much as his scholarship would have been been worth to the school he attended.

The purpose of travelling to Konya was to visit the tomb of Mevlani Rumi, the Sufi mystical poet and founder of a kind of religious order from which the whirling dervishes derives. There is much more to learn about Rumi – and I suggest you do a google search on him to find out more if you are interested. Last year was the “International Year of Rumi”. The pilgrimage to Konya in some ways parallels our planned visit to Assisi on the Rome leg of the trip.

We have a few devotees of Rumi even among our Catholic delegation, although I admit that for me it was a little like my 2007 trip to Gallipoli – I knew very little about the significance of this part of the pilgrimage until I arrived there and realise that I have much more to learn.

On the bus on the way to the tomb, they sang a Sufi chant similar in style to our Taize chants as a prayerful way of preparing for the visit. Before visiting Rumi’s tomb, we visited the tomb of his teacher, Semsitebri. At this point a discussion/debate began among the Muslims as to the reason for visiting the tombs of Muslim saints. It turns out that there is a debate within Islam about the role of the intercession of the saints which almost directly parallels that between the Catholics/Orthodox and the Protestants on this question. The “traditionalists” accept that their saints pray for them and that one might even ask them to intercede for one, whereas other groups claim that the Prophet never enjoined such a practice and that it is therefore invalid. Heba actually said (and I quote) “Why can’t we pray directly to God? Why do we need intercessors?” – just the question that Protestants ask us about the saints.

At Rumi’s tomb we had a guided tour – although I did not follow the tour all the way through. I looked through the complex in which the tomb is situated and then went outside to write up yesterday’s events. As I said, I have no particular devotion to Rumi, and so did not find the experience quite such a spiritual climax as did some others. It was very cold outside although the sun was shining. The wind was blowing directly down from the snowy mountains.

There is a large mosque right next to the tomb, at which the Friday noon prayers were conducted. I did not go inside, as it was crowded with men present for the prayers, but the prayers and sermon were broadcast on a loudspeaker for the whole city to hear (or so it seemed by the volume!). During a lull in the proceedings, I called Cathy and the girls in Australia to see how they all were. When the prayers got going fully, not only the mosque, but the whole square outside was filled with worshippers, so it was possible to observe the prayers from outside. A very impressive display of piety.

Having completed writing, I went in search of a post office to buy stamps for the girls (they are collecting!) but was unsuccessful. I bought a couple of pairs of socks on the way back to the bus, and when I got to the bus I found everyone waiting for me. My watch was slow, it seems.

We went for lunch at a centre that appears to be usually used for wedding receptions. In fact an “MOB” (code for Mother of the Bride among the clergy) actually came to inspect the premises while we were there.

Our guides for the day were Murat and Firat. Murat asked Bishop Prowse what a Bishop was, as the only bishop he had ever heard of was in the game of Chess. He offered this reflection for us:

Life is like a chess game. And at the end of the game all the pieces are put back in the same box, the king (and the bishop) along with the pawn.

Firat then sang a couple of songs for us, and asked us to provide a song in return. Caught off the cuff, we decided that we would sing the Salve Regina together and followed that, since it is Easter, with the Regina Ceoli.

Then we all got onto the bus again and were driven to our accomodation for the evening, which was in separate accomodation for the men and the women in two boarding houses for university students. We were due to go out again for tea and whirling dervishes, but I decided to stay in and get an early night.

I spent time writing up the blog, answering emails concerning the Rome end of our pilgrimage, and then downloaded all the photos I had taken from my camera onto my computer and backed up on a USB stick. Thank goodness I did – as you will read in the next post!

I got to bed at 9pm – the earliest that I had retired for weeks! I woke when Max came in from the evening to tell me that we had to rise at 5am again to catch the first plane from Konya back to Istanbul…

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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 thıs ıdea shocks you, here ıs the text of the Fırst Surah for you to consıder

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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Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Three (April 15): On the Other Side of the Wall

I asked Orhan Cicek this morning whether there was any possibility that I might be able to go to the Coiffeur (ie. Barber) next door to our hotel for a hair cut and a shave. Certainly, he said, and accompanied me around there at 8:30am. The full treatment: Hair cut, trim the side burns, the moustache and beard, shave with a cut-throat razor (something I believe is very rare these days due to the concerns of blood contamination), and even “burning of the ears” – using a small flaming torch to remove the hairs out of my ears! I felt like a plucked chook having the pin feathers burnt off! Then a wash and dry, and all done. Orhan had a quick trim too while waiting, and kindly paid for the whole experience.

The result was that we were running late for our first appointment this morning, which was at the Istanbul Town Hall with the Vice-Mayor. This was a good conversation on the present issues facing the city and nation. The discussion underscored the significance of our joint pilgrimage in terms of civil relations – we have tended to focus on the interreligious benefits.

The Vice-Mayor said that he would like to see Istanbul as a model of Interreligious Dialouge. Truth be told, however, there are not many minorities of other religions in Istanbul. There are the Jews, the Armenians, the Orthodox, and the Italian Catholics – all in very low numbers. Most of the interreligious activity of which the Vice-Mayor was speaking was in international relations with nations like Spain, and conducted on a civilisational or cultural basis. Nb. Istanbul has been chosen as the International Capital for Culture for 2010.

We were then taken to a new museum which had been built since my last visit to Istanbul: the Panorama 1453. I wasn’t expecting what we finally saw after a short line up, but you can get an idea from their website here: The Panorama is a circular painting with real three dimensional objects in the foreground and sky like dome over the top that gives you the impression that you are standing in the middle of the invading Ottoman army during the battle of 1453. To this is added a sound track of the battle. I asked a member of our Catholic team what their reaction to this was and he replied with one word “Terrifying”.

What struck me was the perspective of the Museum. I have long been aware (since attending a 550th commemorative conference in Melbourne in 2003) of the conflicting interpretations of the event we call the Invasion of Constantinople and the Turks call the Conquest of Istanbul. The perspective of the panorama was quite definitely outside the walls. What was going on inside the walls was anyone’s guess. Bishop Prowse commented that we had been to the battle of 1453 and found ourselves on the “wrong” side.

It reminded me of the time I was last in Turkey – for the Anzac Day (April 25th) Gallipoli celebrations in 2007. Then too I saw for the first time artistic depictions of the battle of Gallipoli (or Cenakkale, as the Turks call it) from the Turkish perspective – ie, from up on the hills looking down on the invading ships in the bay, rather than from the usual perspective that I had seen it in all my school text books from the ships in the bay looking up at the hills. The point of perspective depends entirely upon what side you were on at the time. We can’t expect the Turks to view either Gallipoli or 1453 from the same perspective that we do, any more than we can expect the Australian Aboriginals to share the perspective of the European settlers (or vice versa). More about this later.

We then went to a new school of the Gulen Movement called “Burc Koleji”, where we had a comparitively light lunch, during which we discussed the technicalities of slaughtering animal for halal food. Fr Denis keeps bantams for eggs and for meat, which led to a discussion of the mass slaughter of halal chickens. The certification of Islamic food is one of the areas in which Ikebal Patil specialises. Afterwards, we had a tour of the school, including a “fake ice” ice-hockey rink (I had a go at skating on it, but it was like greased ice – no grip what so ever). In the gym there were a bunch of half a dozen guys playing soccer, so after watching for a while the Muslim men of our pilgrimage (and Fr Denis playing goal keeper) challenged the boys to a quick scratch match. Much fun ending with tea handed round for refreshments.

Next we visited a richly decorated and much revered tomb of one of the Prophet’s companions. There were many faithful Muslims gathered around the tomb praying and reading the Koran. Poor old Max couldn’t enter the tomb because he was wearing shorts. “Don’t try that at the Vatican, Max”, I warned him.

While the Muslims conducted their afternoon prayers, we went to a nearby coffee shop for tea and scrolls. Bishop Prowse had not yet tried apple tea, so I recommended it to him and had a glass myself. Gwenda and Charlotte lit up their cigarettes, and once again I found myself without my pipe. Grrr.

There was a bit of a festival going on in the square in relation to the week long celebration of the Prophet’s Birthday. We couldn’t quite understand the explanation that Orhan gave us why this celebration should be taking place now, when the rest of the Muslim world celebrated it five weeks ago, but we were not complaining when the the people in the streets began offering us Turkish delight to eat and to wash our hands with Rose water.

We then caught up with the Muslims who had returned from their prayers. Fatih (the president of the Queensland equivalent of the Australian Intercultural Society) had bought a bag of carob beans for YTL10 per kilogram. I had never tried to eat unprocessed carob before, but found it a pleasant light chocolate taste without bitterness or sweetness. Just don’t try to eat the seeds inside or you will need a visit to the dentist.

Orhan then took us up to a cafe high above the Golden Horn overlooking the ancient city with great views. We were served a hot drink called “saleb”, made from milk, starch, and wild orchid roots, and topped with cinnamon and nutmeg. John Dupuche thought that we might introduce this very pleasant drink into the Archdiocese.

Back at the Hotel, we celebrated Mass in Bishop Prowse’s Room once again and then went out to the final event of the day, dinner with local businessmen at Fetih College. The college caters from kindergarten to final year of high school. A very large u-shape table arrangement sat 50 people (including us) and His Eminence (= associate of Fetullah Gulen, the founder of the movement) Mehmet Ali Sengul was present as our guest of honour.

After dinner almost everyone got a chance to say something. Bishop Prowse, Ikebal Patil, Stewart Sharlow, a businessman associated with Pierre Cardin, and 2 senior goverment appointees to the department for Interior Affairs were also present. The senior government person said that at first he thoughth that it was “weird” to have Catholics and Muslims travelling together, but then he changed his mind as he began to see the benefits.

Here is a precis of what Bishop Prowse said. After describing his experience at the 1453 Museum, he said:

I thought that I was on the wrong side of the wall. Then I realised that we see everything from where we stand. If we look at everythng only from a Christian point of view, we will be too narrow. If I may be so bold, I will also say that if we look at everthing only from a Muslim point of view, we will be too narrow. But when we look at the world from the view of God we can recreate society in the eye of God – made for peace . The must never be another battle of Constantinople, nor must there ever be another war between Muslim and Christians, because if there is, that will be the end of all of us. We are condemned to peace.


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Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Two (April 14): “The Priest Hole”

The topic of this post might be a little sensitive, but I am going to record it to illustrate some of the real difficulties that an interfaith pilgrimage such as ours can encounter.

Let me say right up that there are going to be a number of the really difficult issues to face once we get to Rome. This includes the issue of what food is suitable to serve our feed our Muslim guests and where we can find it, and where and when and how our Muslim friends’ need to pray might be accomodated. I am fairly confident that we will be able to solve all these problems – especially now that I have Italian speakers to communicate with Seniora Loretta.

But today we had a problem on our side. Bishop Prowse was desirous of having the Catholics celebrate daily mass together on the pilgrimage. So he asked us at the beginning of the day how we should go about doing this. Bishop Prowse had bread, but we had no wine. We also figured that we could go to someone’s room, but we were assured by Orhan that we would be able to find a room for use. In fact, when we asked the staff, they said that we could not use alcohol (necessary in the communion wine) in any public space in the hotel, but had to use one of our private rooms. We elected to do this in the end, taking a coffee table from the corridor and covering it with a white table cloth to be the altar. Nine of us then crammed into this space, where Bishop Prowse celebrated and we eight congregants sat on the beds.

It occured to me that this was the strangest episcopal mass that I had ever been present at. But it also struck me that we had just finished visiting one of the oldest and largest churches in the world, Hagia Sophia, which had been designed for the very purpose of the liturgy which we were now celebrating hidden away in our room. I thought that this must have been how the English Recusants must have felt after the English reformation. Bishop Prowse’s bed room had become our “priest hole”. Ah well. As Louise says, “Jesus turned up as usual.” Of course, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is “holed up” in the Fanar more or less. He could accurately be described as “the Prisoner of the Fanar”.

(The local wine, by the way, was not hard to obtain, but was 15 Turkish Lira (1 TL = approx $1) for a half bottle, and not the highest quality. It is a good thing that validity of the sacramanet does not depend upon the quality of the wine.)

After mass, we all met down in the lobby, because we were being taken out to dinner with the Lord Mayor and Deputy Mayor of the City of Istanbul. Jan drove us to a lovely restaurant on the banks of the Bosphorus which was in fact run by the Istanbul Municipal Association. Ersin, the General Secretary of PASIAD, was once again present, as were other municipal dignatories.

I sat next to a young businessman whose business is the live-meat export trade to Saudi Arabia for use in halal ritual sacrifices. I asked him if he had ever been to Australia, since this is where the bulk of hid trade came from. He said no, but he was intending to come soon. I told him to contact me when he got to Australia, and I would take him up to meet my parents on a “real” sheep farm.

The food was very good, but as usual there was lots and lots of it – more than I could reasonably eat. My Turkish business friend was horrified that I did not eat it all, and suggested that I should “take it home to my mother” (Turkish expression). He said that if I was staying in Istanbul for a year, he would see to it that I was fattened up a little.

It was not a late night, but it is late now, and I think it’s time to go to bed.


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Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Two (April 14): “Old Rome, New Rome”

I can’t quite get over this. One day I am sitting in an ancient monastery overlooking the forum and the Colosseum in Rome, the next day (or actually, the day after that – ie. today) I am sitting on the 5th floor roof of a very comfortable hotel on a hill in Old Istanbul in a soft sofa chair, smoking my pipe and overlooking the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. That is what I am doing right now, connected to the Hotel’s free wifi internet. Does it get any better?

Today the program for our tour group was a tour of the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Cistern, and the Hagia Sophia with free time after lunch for exploring the district and the Bazaar.

I started the day very early again, as Ismail had asked me to join him for morning (ie. dawn) prayers in the Blue Mosque. Having been to the Mosque before, but during the day when lots of tourists were there, I thought I would take the opportunity. You can’t sleep after the muezzins get going any way, so I thought I would get up and join him. He was waiting outside my door, so I am glad that I did not disappoint him. It was nice down there at dawn, with the atmosphere something like early morning mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. About 40 men and a few women showed up – some running to catch the start of prayer as the imam entered and began. I knelt behind the barrier at the back and used the time for quiet meditation and prayer myself.

Prayer in Islam is a little like the Daily Office in Catholicism. You can do it on your own, but it is better done together with others, and better still – at least from a spiritual sense – if done in a place of prayer. Dawn prayer in Islam is quite short and not compulsory, although Ismail tells me the Prophet was pretty hot on it. We all know that in this respect, he is in full agreement with Christian and Jewish tradition also.

Breakfast is a very big meal at the hotel, with a lovely buffet and lots of pastries and fruit and yoghurt and cheese and olives and bread etc. etc. I miss the Roman coffee though – I was getting used to my caffee latte hit first thing in the morning! The Muslim contingent of our pilgrimage are a bit concerned when they hear of Roman breakfast being just a coffee and a pastry or bread roll. I think we will stock up on yoghurt and fruit and cheese and bread and such for their rooms at the monastery so they can have something to eat before we have Roman Second Breakfast at a cafe later.

Visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia was a good experience given that I had visited both before. This time I was less awed by my surroundings and could concentrate on the reactions of the other visitors – especially the Muslims who had not been to the Hagia Sophia before. I took lots of photos, but of the faces rather than the places. Last time (2007) I came home with many postcard like photos but few photos of either myself or the group that I had travelled with. This time I snapped continually at the group as they interacted with their surroundings.

The guide we had at the Hagia Sophia really was out of his depth. He began with his usual spiel on the history of Christianity (which was wildly inaccurate) and then felt embarrassed when he discovered he had professional Christian academics in front of him. Much the same as I would feel, I guess, if I tried to explain the history of Islam to a bunch of imams. He gave Bishop Prowse full marks for recognising the symbolism of the serpent… After he left we went upstairs and investigated the Mosaics. I am aware now that we really have to put San Clemente on the itinerary when we are in Rome, so that the full byzantine mosaic effect can be seen.

One place I had not been on my previous trip was down into the ancient underground Cistern, which is like an underground cathedral with water a metre deep on the floor (complete with gold fish the size of tuna).

I have to switch off now and come back in a minute. Bishop Prowse wants to celebrate mass and we are negotiating where we can do it and whether we can have wine in the hotel (currently the answer to the last question is no).

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Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day One (April 13): “Was that Turkey or Torquay?”

Well, the rest of the pilgrimage group has arrived, and we have all been checked into the Golden Horn Hotel in Old Istanbul. Out of our bedroom window, Max Stephens and I have a terrific night time view of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque all lit up. More about the Hotel in a moment.

After logging the last report, I received a phone call from Prof. Ismail Albayrak, the ACU professor who holds the position of “Fethullah Gulen Chair in the Study of Islam and Muslim-Catholic Relations”. Ismail is an all-round top bloke – a Turkish citizen who lives with his family in Melbourne and who is joining us for this pilgrimage. He had been in Turkey for a few days already in another city and had just flown into the airport. So he came and joined me and we spent some time looking at my photos of Assisi (or Cathy’s, more accurately) before the rest of the group arrived at about 6:30pm.

It was somewhat surreal eventually seeing all the 21 pilgrims gathered together. There is an extra ring in on the Turkish end, Prof. Greg Barton from Monash. He is joining the AIS Gallipoli tour (which I did in 2007) which starts at the end of this week, but will join us for the first section of our pilgrimage. Otherwise our group is as follows:


Bishop Christopher Prowse (Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne)
Fr John Dupuche (Chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne)
Mr David Schütz (Executive Officer of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne)
Dr Stewart Sharlow (Director, Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue at Australian Catholic University)
Mrs Charlotte Haine-Sharlow (Member of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, and helpmate to Stewart)
Fr Denis Stanley (Member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne)
Mrs Gwenda Rait (Member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission and Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne)
Dr Max Stephens (Australian Catholic University / University of Melbourne. Member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. Chair of the Faith and Order Commission of the Victorian Council of Churches.
Dr Anita Ray (Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, Australian Catholic University)
Dr Anne Hunt (Campus Dean of the Ballarat Campus of Australian Catholic University).
Fr John Pearce (Priest of the Passionist order)
Fr Franco Cavarra (Member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. [Fr Cavarra is present in Rome following the World Youth Day celebrations and will join some of our Pilgrimage activities while we are in Rome.])


Mr Orhan Cicek (Australian Intercultural Society, Victoria, Executive Advisor)
Mrs Turkan Cicek (Australian Intercultural Society Women’s Network, Victoria, Coordinator – and helpmate to Orhan)
Ms Zuleyha Keskin (Affinity Intercultural Foundation, New South Wales, Vice President)
Mr Mehmet Saral (Affinity Intercultural Foundation, New South Wales, President)
Dr Ismail Albayrak (Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Fethullah Gulen Chair)
Mr Ikebal Patel (Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, President)
Mr Fatih Asar (Queensland Intercultural Society, President)
Mr Osman Karolia (Arkana Islamic College, New South Wales, Principal)
Mr Albert Fatileh (Victoria Police, Multicultural Office)
Ms Heba Ibrahim (Islamic Council of Victoria, Executive Member)
Mr Mustafa Ally (Crescents Community News, Queensland Editor-in-Chief)

When all were ready we were taken to our small coach – and joy of joys! The driver was the same as the one we had when we were last in Istanbul, my good mate who speaks as much English as I do Turkish, Jan. Smiles all round!

We were driven to a very nice hotel where we were welcomed with a formal dinner by Ersin, a leading member of the Turkish group PASIAD, who are a major sponsor of our Turkish Pilgrimage. The dinner was marvellous as expected – but I have learned to pace myself so that I do not over eat at these Turkish feasts. I find the rich food difficult to digest
without any wine to wash it down…

Thoughtfully and thankfully, the dinner did not go late, as the Australian travellers were very tired. We were driven to our lodgings in Old Istanbul, which is, as I said, located very close to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. This is practically the equivalent of our location in Rome, where St Gregory’s is located between the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus and the Forum. The hotel is, in many respects, quite opulent – very Eastern with soft carpets and nice artwork etc. But there is a funny story I have to tell which had me wondering for a moment whether I was in Turkey or Torquay…

I had been allotted a room with Max Stephens. Max was understandably tired after travelling from Singapore over night (nb. the real prize for stamina goes to Fr Denis Stanley who began his Easter sunday in Australia with a 5am vigil – 10pm Saturday night Istanbul time – and then caught the midnight plane for Dubai, finally arriving on Easeter Monday night in Istanbul). When we got to our room (quite small and compact) we were surprised to find only one bed. Fine, I went downstairs and sorted it out. The porter said that he would bring another bed into the room. I went upstairs, and while Max went to make some phone calls, I unpacked all my clothes and belongings into the cupboards. When he got back, he asked if I would mind if he took the only bed and went straight to sleep. Then I received a phone call from the desk asking me to come down to collect a key to another room. Okay, that’s how they were doing it. So I just moved into the new room (taking down all my gear from the wardrobe where I had just arranged it). Max refused to move, as he was just about unconscious with weariness.

The new room had two beds – one as hard as a rock and the other with springs all over the place. It was a hard decision. Once again I unpacked all my clothes etc into the cupboards. Then the porter (let’s call him Basil) called to ask me why Max wasn’t shifting. I explained that he would shift in the morning. No, no, that was no good, one of our two rooms was required for other guests. So Basil turned up with his mate (who, for the sake of simplicity, we will call Manuel) and demanded that Max – by this stage just coming out of the showere with nought but a towel wrapped around him – also pack up and join me in the new room. Nothing doing, said Max. Right, says Basil and Manuel, we’ll move you (ie. me) back in with him. So once again all my clothes are piled into the suitcase and carried back into our original room, followed by Basil and Manuel carrying the rock-hard bed from the new room and putting it into the old room. I guess that solved me having to make that decision!

Time for bed now. Prof Ismail wants to take me down to the Blue Mosque for dawn prayers tomorrow morning. I wonder if he would mind if I took my prayer book and said Lauds…

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Reporting in on Easter Monday from New Rome!

Just signing in with a report. I know that things have been very quiet on SCE in the last week, when I promised you regular updates on my pilgrimage to Rome and Turkey.

The fact is that I have been busier than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Cathy and I have done a year’s worth of walking, and our feet are now very well acquainted with Rome’s cobbled streets.

Anyway, she is on her way home to Australia now, and I am sitting in a bar/café in Istanbul Airport (where I have just paid a ridiculous amount for a cup of coffee, but I reckon it is worth it just to sit still in a comfortable safe spot for a while.

We have been on the run since 7am this morning, having been up till 1am packing. If you ever come to Rome by plane, do what we did when we first arrived: get a taxi or a transfer to the place you are staying. It will be €50 well spent. The alternative, taking a train connection (itself €11 each), using the metro, etc. is a real trial involving a stack of walking (or running, depending on your schedule). Platform 25, from which the train leaves, is right on the other side of the other end of the Termini station.

No one and nothing is about today in Rome except the tourists who are on the move. We ran into Tim Fischer, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See, in the streets of Rome yesterday, and he strongly advised us to start early on journey to the airport due to the almost total lack of taxis etc on this day.

I should tell you something of our stay here in Rome – most of it will have to wait until I get time to do some “flashbacks” over the next few weeks. Yesterday was a great day – and I would not say that generally of the experience of Holy Week in Rome, which is a highly over-rated experience in general, even with tickets to Papal events.

We were due to attend the easter vigil in St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday night, but we were running out of puff. The service began at 9pm and there was already a long queue of ticket holders in the Piazza. We, like them, had the standard blue tickets, but a Carmelite friend living in Rome, Fr Paul Chandler (of whom more will be said in this report), managed to get us a couple of “gold tickets” for the Sunday morning mass in the square. He assured us that this would be the go, especially as there was the added spectacle of the Swiss Guard and the Italian soldiers marching in to do their thing.

As it turned out, we were luckier than Charlie in Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory – although we had to start out early, taking the metro and grabbing a coffee and a couple of doughnuts our favourite bar in Via Ottaviani at 8am, when we arrived we found ourselves in the row directly behind the bishops and the cardinals on the front steps of St Peter’s, in the fifth row from the left side of the papal altar.

The mass was actually very beautiful, even the Sistine Chapel Choir wasn’t too bad. There was a choir of seminarians who sang some popular easter hymns. I haven’t read the Holy Father’s homily in translation yet, but I am assured it was very fine. The icon that they used at the very beginning was quite significant given the Pauline Year. Afterward he went up onto the balcony to give his urbi et orbi speech and blessing. And yes, the soldiers and guard led colour and noise to the already colourful and noisy surroundings. It was quite something to look out and see the whole of the piazza plus half of the Via Della Concilianze full of people, and to think we were right at the heart of all of it. I very much enjoyed singing the Regina Coeli and the “Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat” at the end of the Mass. A real high.

But there was still a couple of things we had to do before leaving Rome today, and one was to get inside St Peter’s Basilica. On Wednesday after the Papal Audience, we had to dash off to meetings at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Australian Embassy, and the Incontrini Romani, so we didn’t get to look into the Basilica then. On Thursday, when we got to the end of our Vatican Museum tour, we couldn’t enter the Basilica from the usual doorway from the Sistine Chapel because of the Chrism Mass. Then on Easter Saturday it was shut getting ready for the Vigil, so this was our last chance. But despite the fact that we were sitting right at the front, we still had to be shuttled right out into the main section of the Piazza, then get in a huge line and wait for the Basilica to be opened. Even then, about a quarter of the floor space around the high alter was closed off, as well as the crypt (so no visit to JPII’s tomb), and the dome (no views). I did get to venerate the tomb of Blessed John XXIII, St Gregory the Great and St Gregory Nazianzus – although I understand that the bulk of the latter’s relics have been returned to Constantinople a few years back. We saw the magnificent memorial of the non-entity Alexander VII by Bernini and the horrid statue of Pius XII (the 1960’s style makes him look really evil – would simply confirm everything our jewish friends think of him). A couple of happy surprises: the memorial to the Stuarts and the tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden. Otherwise the whole place is pretty well a monument to Baroque popes who had no problems in the area of a lack of self-esteem.

We then went out to meet up with our friend, Fr Paul Chandler, who has been working here in Rome for a number of years in the Carmelite Historical Institute. I got to know him a little in Melbourne because he used to run the big Friday night Taize services at Whitefriars back in the 1990’s when Cathy and I were just getting to know each other. Paul has now cemented himself in our esteem and regard, not only for getting us the “gold tickets” for the Papal Mass (which he in turn obtained from a generous personage within the Carmelite order), but also for the very enjoyable Cook’s tour of Medieval Rome that he gave us after a beer at the café at the entrance of the Pio Borge as we were making our way towards the Pantheon. The Pantheon itself was well and truly closed by the time that we got there, but the walk was fascinating. We took the route to Castel St Angelo and then across the bridge through to the Piazza Nuvona and St Luigi’s (where the Chapel of St Matthew is decorated with three major paintings of the life of the Saint by Carravagio.

Along the way, we “bumped” into Bishop Tim Costello (Auxiliary of Melbourne), Mr Francis Moore (Melbourne’s business manager), Fr Stewart Moran (Melbourne priest studying in Rome) and Fr Chris Ryan (in charge of the Melbourne seminary for Missionaries of God’s Love at Burwood). Later, as I said, we also met up with Tim Fisher. There was probably nothing odd about the odds here – the streets were full of people. Italians celebrate a festival by going out and walking on the streets, so there are lots of meetings going on.

We ended up having dinner in a restaurant at the Pantheon that looked promising for our Catholic Muslim pilgrimage. Cheap food, huge serves, right location, lots of vegetarian dishes. Paul explained to them our needs, and the restrictions of Hallal food, but we were a little disappointed when the dish that Cathy ordered – spinach and ricotta tortellini – came out with peas and ham. “We had no spinach and tortellini, so we made you this.” Great. Just the sort of thing to embarrass us with our Muslim guests. AND just the sort of thing Italians would do, said Paul: they don’t come and ask you what you would like instead, they decide for you!

At the end of the evening we caught the bus home to the Monastery San Gregorio al Celio, but had to go via the Termini to get our train tickets for the morning. So it was about 11pm when we got home, and then we had to pack, resulting in a 1am retirement. We were able to pick up some fresh fruit, yoghurt, juice, and croissants at a supermarket, which we had for breakfast this morning.

Well, the rest of the team should be arriving from Dubai any moment now, and the head of our Muslim contingent said he would be here at the Arrivals centre by 5:30pm, so I will sign off for now. Don’t panic if the reports are sporadic in the future, but I do hope that while we are in Turkey I can make them a little more regularly.

Hooroo, and over and out from New Rome!

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