When Turkey took umbrage over a statue

The statue of Pope Pius V which caused diplomatic ripples for the way the flag being trodden upon by the saint was mistakenly shown as the flag of modern Turkey.

The statue of Pope Pius V which caused diplomatic ripples for the way the flag being trodden upon by the saint was mistakenly shown as the flag of modern Turkey.

Pope Pius V, who led the Catholic Church between 1566 and 1572, ended up in the midst of a diplomatic incident some 434 years later due to a mistake in a flag on a statue in Vittoriosa.

When Pius V was elected Pope, the Catholic Church had just recovered from the upheavals of Protestantism and the Reformation, but was being faced by the military power of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. The Dominican monk battled on two fronts, on one hand among quarrelling Catholic rulers and protestant kings and on the other with Muslim warlords.

For Malta, Pius V is considered as the Pope who encouraged the Knights of St John, both morally and financially, to build the city of Valletta.

For all these reasons, Catholic iconography remembers him as the Pope who halted the march of the Ottoman Empire.

When, in 1999, the people of Vittoriosa commissioned Michael Camilleri Cauchi to make a statue of the saint, he was instructed to show Pius as a Dominican friar, wearing the papal tiara, trampling over the symbols of the Ottoman Empire. The artist represented these latter symbols as a broken canon and a flag of the Ottoman Empire.

And this is where the statue unwittingly entered the delicate realm of diplomacy. The Ottoman flag consisting of a white half moon on a red field, was mistakenly represented as a half moon and a star, turning it into the flag of modern Turkey.

Nobody realised the mistake until the statue was displayed in Vittoriosa for one day in August 2000. A Turkish tourist took photos of the statue that offended him so much.

A few days later, the secretary of the committee in charge of the outdoor festivities got an urgent letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting an explanation after pressure was brought to bear by the Turkish Embassy in Rome. After a thorough explanation of the facts, the white star was removed and the matter apparently settled.

But last year a picture of the statue with the Turkish flag appeared on an internet site, which stated that the Maltese were obstructing Turkey's integration within the EU, and the picture was proof enough of how the Maltese viewed modern Turkey!

Once again, diplomacy sprang into action and a former President of Malta was asked to intervene to clear the air after the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed its Maltese counterpart of the site.

The statue now stands symbolically besides the Inquisitors' Palace, in Vittoriosa, during the feast of St Dominic which is being celebrated this week in this maritime city, hopefully now steering clear of any ambassadorial bickering.

Mr Abela is president of the Prince of Wales Own Band Club, Vittoriosa.


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