His Eminence Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson was born 11 October 1948 in Nsuta Wassaw (in the Western region of Ghana, Africa). On 20 July 1975, Peter Turkson was ordained to the priesthood in the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Cape Coast, Ghana. Eighteen years later, in the same Cathedral, he was ordained and installed as the Archbishop of Cape Coast, on 27 March 1993. On 28 September 2003, Pope John Paul II named him to the Sacred College of Cardinals, and he was created a Cardinal in the public Consistory of 21 October 2003 at the Vatican.
His Eminence Peter K.A. Turkson studied at St. Teresa’s Seminary in Amisano, from 1962 to 1967. From 1969 to 1971, he studied at the regional Seminary of St. Peter in Pedu. Later he traveled to the United States for further studies in theology at St. Anthony’s on Hudson, in Rensselaer, NY. Five years later, he was assigned to study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, first for a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture (1976—1980); and again in 1987, to complete a doctorate in Sacred Scripture, during which time he was nominated to be the Archbishop of Cape Coast, in 1993.
He served on the faculty of St. Teresa’s Seminary of Amisano, and of St. Peter’s Regional Seminary in Pedu. He also served as part-time Lecturer at the Department of Religious Studies at UCC, Cape Coast (1981-1987), and as visiting Lecturer at the Catholic Major Seminary of Anyama, Côte d’Ivoire, and as the Archbishop of Cape Coast, His Eminence was President of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (1997-2004); Chancellor of the Catholic University of Ghana; and an appointed member of several institutions of the Roman Curia: the Pontifical Commission for Methodist-Catholic Dialogue (1997—2007); the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (2002—present); the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church (2002—present); the Pontifical Congregation for Divine Worship (2005—present); the International Secretariat of the Pontifical Mission Societies (2006—present); and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2007—2009), as well the Honorary President of the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP), and a member of the Association of Ghana Biblical Exegetes.
Throughout his years as an Archbishop and a Cardinal, he has received numerous honors and awards, including: honorary degrees from the University of Ghana in Legon; the University of Education in Winneba; and Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana, USA; the Order of the Star, a national honor of the Republic of Ghana; the Order of the Rock, from the Anomabo Traditional Area in Central Ghana. His Eminence also speaks fluent Fante, English, French, Italian, German, Hebrew and has been the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace since his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI on 24 October 2009. Following His Eminence’s visit to Iran and with the invaluable help of Archbishop Leo Boccardi Apostolic Nuncio of the Holy See to Iran, we managed to hold a thorough interview with His Eminence.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson,
President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
Your Eminence, how many times have you visited Iran?
This is my first visit.
Considering past occurrences, do you think there is ever a possibility of real communication between Islam and Christianity?
Of course! It’s true we have had our difficulties but there is no reason for us not to communicate with one another. And if you look at the past, you see there have been a lot of discussions between Islamic scholars and Christian scholars. Think, too, of the visit of Saint Francis of Assisi to the Sultan at Damietta in the thirteenth century. What is new today is that we can have relationships not just between individuals but between institutions and universities.
How do you understand the dispute of recent years between the Vatican and Islam?
Approximately ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk in Germany, and some of his remarks were misinterpreted as being offensive to Islam. Pope Benedict was speaking at his old University in Regensburg. He chose to address former colleagues on the relationship between reason and religion. At one stage he mentioned a remark made by a Christian writer who lived many centuries ago to the effect that Islam was spread by the sword. It wasn’t the opinion of the Pope himself but the fact that he mentioned it was taken as offensive.
There was also an instance five years ago when a church in Alexandria was bombed and the Pope called for better protection of Christians in the Middle East.
After the reaction to Pope Benedict’s statements, you had a specific mission to come to Iran. Why did not you come to Iran in that period?
That is incorrect; I was not assigned as a special delegate to Iran. I am glad to say that the council in Rome for interreligious dialogue has an ongoing dialogue with Al-Azhar University, and I was invited to join a special dialogue team for a dialogue in Al-Azhar. When we were there, we did other visits including to Christian groups.
Isn’t it true that the Pope assigned you to come to Iran and talk with Iranian Muslims? Why didn’t you do that?
No, the Pope never sent me. That is not a part of my job. I was invited by the people of Qom, through the ambassador of Iran to the Holy See, for a discussion about the role of religions in realizing or establishing peace and justice in the world.
When Pope Benedict XVI tendered his resignation because of his physical and spiritual exhaustion, the media focused on you as a main choice for his successor. Is the Christian world ready to soon witness the election of a black Pope?
Media speculation happens all the time. For example, in this year’s election in Iran, the media says a lot of things. When Pope Benedict resigned, the speculation began with some Irish bookmakers who bet on the winners of elections. They came up with my name not because they knew me but because I was from Africa, I was working in the Vatican and had been in charge of few big meetings in the Vatican. So they listed me as one of the promising candidates.
People all over the world including Muslims and Christians are very interested to know how the pope is elected. What is going on behind those walls? Of course if it is a secret, we can skip this question.
No, it isn’t a secret. Most importantly, it is a process that tries to avoid influence from outside. When the seat of the Pope is vacant, whether he dies or resigns, then all the cardinals around the world come to Rome unless they cannot travel due to age or illness. Those who are under 80 years old are qualified to vote and to be considered for the position. They live all together in a residence inside the Vatican. There is no television, no telephone, no radio and no newspaper. This prevents outside influence. They are also protected: the back of the residence, which opens onto the street, is protected by an electronic shield.
The cardinals pray a great deal together. They invite experts to speak to them. They discuss the experience of the church in all parts of the world. This gives the cardinals a complete picture of the state of the church in the world.
When the discussion is ended, the cardinals enter to the “conclave” in the Sistine Chapel. It’s very famous for the paintings of Michelangelo. We all – 115 of us when Pope Francis was elected – sit down at the central table in that room, the door is closed and locked (“conclave” means “with a key”). Then the leader of the cardinals invites a preacher to help us understand the seriousness of our task. When he finishes his speech, he goes out if he is not a cardinal. Then one by one we swear on the Bible that we are coming to vote without any influence from the outside. Then we return to our seats with only a pen and one sheet of paper in front of us. Without any consultation or discussion, everybody writes a name: the cardinal who he wishes to become Pope. You fold your paper and bring it to a plate on which you lay your paper. This shows everybody that you are voting only once. So there is full transparency in the election of the Pope. Then the papers go into a box.
Isn’t there any lobbying?
No. Even when we go there and live together, we don’t talk to each other along those lines.
Please describe the counting of votes
When everybody is done voting, we choose three people from among us as scrutineers. They open the box and read the votes. The first picks up a paper, reads out the name and then gives it to the second to read and repeat the name. The third person does the same and then puts a needle through it. They repeat this process for each and every ballot paper. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes, and everybody is watching and listening. When all of it is done, they announce the totals. If no name has at least two thirds of the votes, then there is no Pope and we have to do it again. What is done with the votes? They put them in the oven and burn them. The colour of smoke through the chimney shows the result. They add a chemical to it to make the smoke black or white.
If there is no two-thirds majority, we vote again. Normally we vote twice in the morning before lunch and twice in the afternoon. If the process of electing Pope takes a very long time, then we invite a preacher again to talk about our responsibility. If the smoke is white, it means we have reached at least two-thirds agreement and our new Pope is elected.
Will the second and the third most voted be determined?
It is not important who was second or third and so on, just the name of the cardinal who received the backing of two thirds or more.
I want to mention an important point. In Iran, the council that elects the leader believes that the leader is not electable. The leader already exists. We just search and find him and then we vote. It is almost the same model as yours. This similarity is very interesting for me.
Yes, it can be very interesting. There is much that Christians and Muslims have in common from the earliest times. So this similarity is not surprising. Friday and Saturday, I was in Qom and visited the shrine of Lady Fatima. This Shia devotion reminded me of our Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus.
The difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims is that we Shias believe that we can have recourse to these holy shrines. That’s why you can’t see such a thing for example in Saudi Arabia.
As I say, there are many similarities between Christianity and Islam even if there are some important differences too.
Of course, you were familiar with Islam since childhood because your uncle was a Muslim.
In my extended family in Ghana, one of my uncles was a Muslim and we lived together in harmony and without any problems. My father was Catholic, my mother was a Methodist and we lived together peacefully.
Why weren’t you inspired to follow your uncle’s religion?
Had I done so, I could be asked why I didn’t follow the religion of my father.
What interested you about the Catholic Church?
It’s the same question I can ask you about Islam. You didn’t choose Islam. You were born a Muslim and I was born in the Catholic faith. We did not grow up, learn about some religions and choose one of them. If I was born in Iran, I would probably be a Muslim now. And if you were born in Ghana, you would probably now be a Christian. What we are is an accident of where we were born.
But one cannot accidentally reach the level you are now and become a priest. It’s actually the result of effort, perseverance, motivation and study.
Most importantly, it’s the grace of God.
Do you think you have a mission from God?
Definitely, all of us are here for a vocation. Not everybody in Iran who is Muslim is an Ayatollah. You believe and accept that God is present and enables some people to serve the community.
Your family included different religions and lived peacefully together. I wish this could also happen all over the world, but it doesn’t.
It can happen. When I was growing up, it happened. We lived together in harmony. My uncle was not the only Muslim I knew. There were also some others in our neighbourhood. We all lived peacefully together with mutual tolerance and acceptance. Now there is a movement coming into Ghana and several other countries that claims it wants to purify Islam. Purifying Islam for the proponents today seems to mean less and less acceptance of other people who are different. That’s where the problems begin. The problem we have in Nigeria is of this nature.
You are actually referring to Boko Haram.
Boko Haram is one movement in West Africa. There are also other movements like Al-Shabab in East Africa.
Do you agree that Boko Haram and Al-Shabab and such groups are the enemy of Islam and Christianity?
I know what Christians have suffered from them, but I don’t know why they attack some Muslim communities. In Nigeria they attacked churches first, then government installations like police and army stations. Now they even attack markets where you find all sorts of people including Christians and others. I really don’t know what they are looking for.
I am aware of the long history of Africa and what happened there. Some countries attacked Africa and colonized it. The people of Africa experienced lots of pressure. Under this pressure many had to accept Christianity. Arab attackers also came to Africa and many had to accept Islam. What about the present situation? How can a moderate and sensible Christianity or Islam take hold?
Christianity did not come to Africa only through Europe. It also came from Ethiopia through the Nile and later from Europe by sea. And Islam came to Africa from the Middle East and Egypt through the Sahara Desert. So the two religions came to Africa through different routes. I doubt that anybody can describe the traditional form of Christianity as radical or fundamentalist. What happened with Christianity when it came was that it imitated the tensions that existed in Europe. Missionaries brought Christianity to Africa in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Therefore the fight between different nations in Europe became the fight between different colonies in Africa. The tension between Catholics and Protestants in Africa mirrored the tension between the Catholics and the Protestants in Europe. Islam first came to West Africa through desert. In East Africa it was different: it is very close to Arab countries across the sea. We have different groups of Muslims including Shias, Sunnis and Ahmadis in Africa.
As an African, you are the voice of all African Catholics. And you are the one who can help Africa’s conditions improve. I want to mention a very important issue: AIDS in Africa. Many people became contaminated and died. Do you believe if the Catholic Church had allowed the use of condoms, this disease would have been prevented?
First, I may speak for the Catholic Church, however the teachings of the Catholic Church are constant, no matter who is sent to different parts of the worlds. So if I teach about HIV AIDS and the use of condoms in Africa, the same would be taught by someone who is sent to America or India. HIV AIDS is a disease which is transmitted through unsafe sex and the use of contaminated needles. The teaching of the Catholic Church is that sex has an objective. Every sexual act must be open to procreation. Using condoms is an obstacle to procreation. That is why the Church opposes it. The same message is taught all over the world. When HIV AIDS appeared, we reminded people of the value of abstinence and of fidelity, faithfulness to your partner Very many people thought condoms would be the solution; there was a lot of pressure on the Church to change its teaching. Some governments gave condoms to their people. The Church said that abstinence is the first solution. If you have HIV AIDS, abstain from sex; but if you cannot abstain, stay faithful to your partner and do not contaminate the people of your community.
All over the world, there are poor people. Based on Catholic teaching, you advise poor Catholics not to use condoms in spite of the fact that they need to keep their families small to avoid becoming poorer. The United Nations Population Fund has proved that using a condom can prevent procreation and as a result can prevent the expansion of poverty.
This is a different topic: not condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS but as a contraceptive against childbirth. You have put two issues together which do not belong together. Regarding birth control and contraception, the Catholic Church is against artificial contraception. I told the UN, on the 2010 Millennium Development Goals, that you do not eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. Rather, you eliminate poverty by investing in the capacity of the poor. That is what we do as a Church.
What was your father’s job? I think he was a carpenter.
Yes, that’s right.
How much did he earn? You were living in two rooms. Imagine that the family became larger. Wouldn’t that make you poorer?
Our home had two rooms and we were 10 siblings. Of course, not all were living together at the same time. My father worked for a mining company. The company built houses for the workers and they did not allow any worker to build his own house. If my father had had the opportunity to build a house, he would have built a bigger one. His salary was enough but the mining company did not permit it.
If wealth is shared between among more people, the share of each one decreases and subsequently there is less prosperity and happiness and also less attention.
As I said earlier, I was in Qom. In Qom, there is a big Islamic library. It was started by a poor man. He earned money by reciting the Quran and used it to buy books. He never went on Haj because he never had the money. In his poverty, he built that library. When you talk about poverty and happiness, it depends on the priorities that people set for themselves in life. In Islam, there are many spiritual figures who lived in poverty not because they wanted to be wretched but because they wanted to dedicate their lives to God. We have these kinds of people in Christianity too.
Think about prosperous countries that also have a high rate of suicide. Fulfilment in life does not just come by money.
The Prophet of Islam quoted, “Little after poverty strikes one, faith leaves their hearts.”
Poverty is not the enemy of faith. There is a strong tradition in Christianity that holy people voluntarily seek and accept poverty. Men and women who formally enter religious life make a vow of poverty.
How do the Vatican and you see homosexuality? Does the Holy See consider homosexuality to be natural or a disorder?
The Church does not accept homosexual activity or same-sex marriages. However, all human beings have inalienable dignity. This leads the Church to remind people not to discriminate unjustly against homosexuals. The issue for the Catholic Church is that the homosexuals should not be criminalized. They should be accompanied, feel welcomed, be helped. I know a Catholic Church in London that has provided a special place for the Catholic homosexuals to gather together and receive the attention they need. The Church believes that whatever a person does, he or she still has his dignity and that dignity must be respected.
So why did the Church sentence homosexuals to death in the past?
I don’t know any period of the history when the Church did that. I studied in America from 1971 to 1975. In those days psychology books on human development claimed that homosexuality was an abnormality. In the past 20 years the books have changed and now they talk about it as if it were normal, as an alternative life style. The Church has a clear position. But a homosexual does not have to leave the Church. Christianity believes that with the grace of God people can lead lives pleasing to God.
You imply that the Church community itself is dealing with this issue.
Sure, it is.
But one may hide his sexuality and even reach the highest office.
As I say, it is celibacy that is important. The clergy in the Catholic Church are called to be celibate. If people hide things then by definition we wouldn’t know about it.
You have an especially hard mission when you face conservative people in the U.S. I would like to ask you a question about this. Because humans cause a lot of the climate change in the world, the Pope has asked for an end to the use of fossil fuels. The Republicans in the U.S. claimed that the Pope is interfering with political and scientific issues. Even the head of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has named global warming a “lie”. In fact, he indirectly accused the Pope of lying.
I don’t know this person, but yes, people do talk about such criticism. At a seminar in Boston, I met Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Dr. John Holdren, White House Science Advisor and chief negotiator at Paris, both of whom patiently and repeatedly explain the science of climate change. The reality is that some politicians dispute or even deny climate change. The U.N. brought together 800 scientists who studied the issue and came up with the result that climate change is real. The fact is that the level of the sea is rising due to different factors like floods or melting of the polar ice. We cannot deny climate change since it is tangible. A man from Kazakhstan told me that the temperature is 15 degrees below zero, but this is very warm because in the past at this time of the year it was 30 degrees below zero. The problem is with the carbon in the atmosphere.
The Vatican is known as a religious leader. At the same time it is a country. How do these two facts combine?
Very simple. The Vatican City State, founded in 1929, is a small territory in the city of Rome, beside the Vatican hill, where the central offices of the Catholic Church are located. The Vatican City State was founded in order to guarantee the Pope’s freedom and independence in the exercise of his mission as a religious leader. On the other hand, the Holy See (or Apostolic See, as it was founded by the Apostle Peter) is the aggregation of all the offices of the Roman Curia located in the Vatican that assist the Pope in his universal mission as the visible head of the Catholic Church. So the Holy See and the Vatican are different, even if people use the two terms interchangeably. The Pope is essentially a religious leader and his office is in the Vatican, which is a tiny state. The Pope’s principal advisors include the Cardinal Secretary of State, who has the rank of a prime minister, and other Cardinals and Archbishops, who have the rank of ministers; I am the minister in charge of social issues. The Pope is the head of the Vatican State but, more importantly, he is the Successor of the Apostle Peter to whom was entrusted the governance of the Church. We know, however, from history that, as head of the Church, he could also live and work somewhere else.
What are your responsibilities in your ministry? What is your top priority?
Iran has two ambassadors in Rome, one for Italy itself and one to the Holy See. The ambassador to Italy talks about trade, commerce and government relations. The ambassador of Iran to the Holy See will never talk about these things because the Holy See has nothing to do with them. The only business of the Vatican is about human beings and their development and growth. So there are offices that look at education. Other offices look at the Catholic religion in relation to other religions. My office looks at the social issues.
I’ve heard you are one of the writers of the Pope’s speeches.
Yes, every year in January the Church celebrates the world day of peace. Our office prepares the draft and it goes to the Pope. He can correct or add anything he wants. I constantly consult with the Pope about different matters because he has appointed me and I am working for him. So when I have any plan or program, I go and discuss it with him; if he is not happy with it, we do not go ahead with it. He also gives us assignments.
I am tremendously eager to know what was the last topic that you consulted and discussed with Pope.
I’ll tell you, it’s not a secret. We talked about concrete programs to celebrate the “Year of Mercy”. The purpose of the celebration is to do all we can to overcome poverty.
Can you tell me of a topic that you discussed with Pope and hoped to implement but it did not happen?
A presidential election took place in Ivory Coast in late 2010 and there was a dispute between the former and the new president. We were invited there to settle the dispute. I was assigned to go there but they had closed the border. So I went to Ghana for a week and kept trying. When I saw it was hopeless I came back. That was a case where the Pope’s wishes could not be realized.
In a prayer ceremony the Pope requested help for Syrian refugees, among whom there are many Christians. How do you think the Vatican can help them?
The Vatican has already been helping them, not only Christians, but also other minorities who are the most vulnerable. The Vatican office called “Cor Unum” is in charge of humanitarian assistance and it has been helping since the Syria problem began. Naturally we would wish there were peace negotiations so that people wouldn’t have to leave their homes, but in the absence of peace we try to help to make the situation better for them.
In the second day of his trip to Torino, Pope apologized to the Protestant Church for what has happened in the past. Have you advised him in this case?
No, another office is in charge of this, an office for Christian unity between Catholics and other Christian groups. This was not the first time; there was also a papal apology to the Jews. But in this case, I think you are talking about the Waldensian Church. Later this year, however, the Pope will go to Sweden to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017.
I said earlier that conflicts between missionaries in Africa reflected the fighting in Europe when the Catholic and Protestant Churches were at loggerheads. The present Pope says we should all forgive and forget about all the fighting. It is a good quality if world leaders have the humility and ability to say “I’m sorry for what we did in the past.” The world would change completely. But a lot of people can’t do that. So this is what we do as the Church. For example, the last time that the Ambassador of Iran to the Holy See came to invite me to come here to Qom, he asked me to comment on a letter written in December by the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei to the young people in the West, conveying “a genuine viewpoint from inside the Muslim world on the fight against terrorism for the youth.”. Perhaps the letter acknowledges that the future of relations between Iran and Europe is more for the young than for the elderly. There seems also to be a desire to have persons in important positions to come to know Iran, and this has led to us talking together today.
We also recognize this fact; Persia is not only of interest to Shia Islam. It is also an important place mentioned in the Christian Bible. So it is also of interest to the Christians. There are tours from Italy to Iran to see what Iran is like. And I saw a lot of scholarship in the library in Qom, which the world should know about. I think it is also probably time to appeal to young and established scholars at all Iranian universities to be more open. Thank God, the problems between the world powers and Iran are gradually disappearing. It is time for Iran to come up to see and be discovered by the rest of the world and make its contribution to world civilization.
Did you meet with the Pope prior to your trip to Iran?
Not immediately. I knew President Hassan Rouhani had been to Rome. If he had had any messages, he would have given them to the Holy Father. Had the President not been there, then I would have informed the Pope about my visit; were there any message to deliver, he would have sent it through me. But the President had just been to the Vatican before me, and so I didn’t think it was necessary to meet the Pope about my trip here.
In Qom, you met with Iranian Shia Marjas, who are grand clerics of the country. What major challenges and priorities did you all address?
As I said, the invitation was to a conference, which took place in the Seminary of Qom. The topic was the contribution of revealed religion to peace and justice in the world. Ayatollahs and scholars took part in the discussions. In addition, we met with three groups at the Seminary, then a scientific committee and a conference group at Khomeini University, and with certain individual Ayatollahs. One of them gave me a book about his visit with Pope John Paul II. I think we had positive exchanges with all these individuals.
So to sum up, now that you are going back to the Vatican, what do you think has been achieved?
A relationship has already been established by the Ministry for discussions between universities in Rome and in Tehran. What we began in Qom is another relationship, to see how religious people or religious leaders of Shia Islam and the Church can work together for peace, justice and social issues.
Do you think exchanging scholars is really feasible?
Of course. A MOU has been drafted. Hopefully, all will sign and launch an event that we will organize together. We are interested in students from all over the world and at all levels of their religious community. We met the Minister of Labour outside Qom and talked about all these possibilities. Perhaps we can organize a seminar with ambassadors from Iran to the Vatican and vice versa. There can be exchange between the two groups on several levels.
Do you see a brighter future for cooperation between scientific and research centers in Iran and the Vatican?
That would be good news. We feel that Iran needs to open up. Iran has a lot of scholarship and experience to share with the world, and the world out there needs to discover Iran.
I hope we all get to that point.
With your help, as you say, Inshallah.
Is it probable that Pope pays a visit to Iran?
The head of Iran needs to invite him. If the Pope is invited, then he might visit. We can say at the end of the interview that we hope and pray that the Pope will one day visit Iran. Why not?
In conclusion …
St. Francis of Assisi once prayed: “Lord, make me a channel of your peace.” We today pray in this sacred place of Shiite Islam: “Lord, make us builders of the city of man which deserves the name Salaam / shalom / pax”. May God the Almighty and All-Merciful, who daily inspires generous desires to serve the common good and achieve justice and peace on earth, grant us abundant grace to live our commitments fully and bring them to fruition.