I’m immensely saddened by the suicide bombing in Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul early this morning. What is sobering is that I have stood many times in that same spot, near the Obelisk in the Hippodrome. My condolences and prayers are with victims and their families, apparently mostly German tourists, and all who are directly affected by the bombing, including several shopkeepers and hotel owners in the area whom I know personally.
For on-the-scene coverage of events in Turkey, as well as informed commentary, I rely on local English-language news media, Today’s Zaman and Hürriyet Daily News, as well as Al-Monitor for Middle-East commentary from a world-wide perspective. I also frequently check Asia News, a publication of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, which covers Inter-Religious and Inter-Cultural relations especially well.
It looks like hopes for my returning to Turkey to lead another Early Christian World Pilgrimage are becoming less and less likely to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Today’s attack, by a lone suicide bomber, a Saudi-Arabia-born Syrian, apparently acting in the name of ISIS, raises fears in many people that cannot be easily addressed in a positive way. Even though our own neighborhoods are not immune from mass violence, and even though American pedestrian deaths exponentially exceed terrorist killings of Americans worldwide, it’s hard to convince people that travel to Turkey is still less risky than staying at home. My usual remark about feeling safer in Istanbul than crossing Santa Monica Boulevard still holds true.
But, I’m tired of of having to face stares of unbelief when I answer questions about Turkey. I’m tired of trying to recruit people who aren’t prepared to believe that Pilgrimage to the “Holy Land of the Church” is as wonderful as those who have experienced it, some repeatedly, know it is.
This year marks the Tenth Anniversary of the Early Christian World Pilgrimages that I’ve led to Turkey. The first was in 2006, after an inspiring study tour to Turkey and Greece that I took in 2005. I canceled plans for an anniversary Pilgrimage this spring after the bombing in Ankara last fall, knowing that fear would keep people from coming.
I also feel that Turkey is becoming politically a less comfortable place to travel, being led by an increasingly dictatorial madman who still seems to have popular support, while thinking people, in Turkey and worldwide, are shaking their heads in disbelief. Turkey was one of the most hopeful (as well as prosperous) democracies in the Middle East, but those hopes are collapsing in shambles. One of the ominous reports after today’s suicide bombing in Istanbul was that the government clamped down on media access before the ambulances even arrived.
So, I’ve decided to permanently scuttle plans for organizing and leading any future Pilgrimages to Turkey or anywhere else. The effort no longer is proportional to the results. My thanks to the 125 who made this Pilgrimage with me in the past, and to the many people who helped make it happen.
So what about the future? I’m still game to participate in Pilgrimages of various sorts organized and led by others. I’m willing to serve as chaplain or collaborator. In fact, I’ve signed up for two Pilgrimages this year: one in May to the Holy Land and Rome for the Jubilee of Mercy Celebration for Deacons, the other to the Holy Land with Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs in October. Anyone who still is interested in traveling with me, I’d love to have you come!
As to celebrating the Early Christian World Pilgrimage Tenth Anniversary, I’m thinking to put together a shared “virtual Pilgrimage experience” combined with a celebrational gathering. Stay tuned.
Note: On the map, the large, square, complex white-roofed building at the upper right is the Hagia Sophia.