ISTANBUL, (Reuters) – A Catholic bishop who was a leading figure in Christian communities in the Middle East was stabbed to death in his home in southern Turkey on Thursday and police arrested his driver in connection with the case.
The murder of Luigi Padovese, who served as apostolic vicar in the town of Iskenderun, near the Biblical town of Antioch, raises concerns about the safety of minorities in predominantly Muslim Turkey, where Christians have been targeted previously.
Hatay Provincial Governor Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz told the state-run Anatolian news agency that there was no immediate evidence of a political motive for the murder and that the bishop’s driver was apprehended.
Church officials in Rome expressed worry over the killing.
“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 minority Christian communities in the Middle East during his trip to Cyprus, which begins on Friday.
Padovese’s murder comes four years after a Roman Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, was murdered in the Turkish Black Sea town of Trabzon by a teenager 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 the central Turkish town of Malatya.
Padovese, 63, was a well-known figure in Rome and the Vatican. He served as president of the Turkish Bishops Conference and attended conferences about the Church in the Middle East. He was appointed to his post in Iskenderun on the Mediterranean coast in 2004. A Roman Catholic apostolic vicariate is established in missionary regions in countries that do not have a diocese.
The province of Hatay is home to the cave Church of St Peter, reputed to be where Jesus’ disciple led the first mass, and prides itself on religious tolerance.
About 100 Roman Catholic adherents live in Hatay. The region is home to 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians and about a few dozen Jews. Many of the Muslim inhabitants adhere to the Alevi tradition, which is considered a more 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 and Catholics of Hatay were planning a joint mass this month that they were now likely to cancel, he said.