ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Catholic bishop who was a leading figure in Christian communities in the Middle East was stabbed to death at his home in southern Turkey Thursday, and police arrested his driver in connection with the attack.
The motive for the killing of Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar for Anatolia, in the town of Iskenderun was not known. Previous attacks on Christians have raised concerns about the safety of religious minorities in Muslim Turkey.
Hatay Provincial Governor Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz told the state-run news agency Anatolian there was no immediate evidence of a political motive and the bishop’s driver had been arrested.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters in Florence: “This is a tragic event that shocks us deeply.”
Vatican officials said the killing was worrying.
“I can only express shock, worry and solidarity with the local Catholic community over this,” Father Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, told Reuters in Rome.
Lombardi said Pope Benedict would speak out about violence against Christian minority communities in the Middle East during a visit to Cyprus, which begins Friday. Padovese, 63, was due to travel with the pontiff to Cyprus.
Four years ago, a Roman Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, was murdered in the Turkish Black Sea town of Trabzon by a teen-ager with suspected links to ultra-nationalists.
In 2007, three members of a Bible publishing company, one of whom was a German citizen, were tortured and killed in Malatya.
Padovese served as president of the Turkish Bishops Conference and worked for the return of Christian sites seized by Turkish authorities in the past.
“As he was a friend of Turkey, about which he produced important works, Padovese’s death is a significant loss, in religious and scientific terms,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We express our condolences to our Christian citizens and the Catholic community.”
Turkey has about 100,000 Christians out of a total population of 71 million.
Padovese was appointed to his post in the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun near the biblical city of Antioch in 2004. An apostolic vicariate is established in certain regions where there are too few Catholics for a diocese.
About 100 Roman Catholics live in Hatay province, home to the cave Church of St. Peter, reputed to be where Jesus’s disciple Peter led the first mass. The area prides itself on its religious tolerance.
It is home to 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians and a tiny Jewish community. Many of the Muslim inhabitants adhere to the Alevi tradition, considered to be a liberal strain of Islam.
“We are in a state of sadness and shock. This is something you would never expect in Hatay. It is a safe place,” said Fadi Hurigil, head of the Greek Orthodox Church Foundation of Antakya, the Turkish name for Antioch, by telephone.
The Orthodox Christians and Catholics of Hatay were planning a joint mass this month which was likely to be canceled, he said.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella and Silvia Aloisi in Rome and Tom Heneghan in Paris