The Horrific and Mysterious Death of Bishop Padovese

An investigation into the murder of the Turkish prelate remains unresolved.

Iskenderun, a port city on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean, near the Syrian border, is the seat of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia, one of three Latin ecclesiastical jurisdictions in Turkey. The apostolic vicar, Bishop Luigi Padovese, an Italian Capuchin who also served as president of the Turkish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, met with government authorities on Thursday morning, June 3, 2010, to discuss problems affecting religious minorities.

Later, at around 1:00 pm, the bishop answered the door to his residence and was accosted and stabbed repeatedly by his driver, Murat Altun. Police arrested the 26-year-old, unmarried Muslim man that same afternoon; the suspect was carrying the murder weapon and confessed to having killed his employer.

The Vatican nuncio in Turkey, Msgr. Antonio Lucibello, speaking on June 3 to the ANSA news agency, confirmed initial, sketchy reports of the bishop’s violent death and the driver’s confession. “It’s strange, because I have always seen the man as someone who was very devoted to Padovese.”

News of the horrific crime was practically drowned out in Europe by interminable media coverage of the May 31 Israeli attack on the aid flotilla that ran the Gaza blockade. On June 3 Vatican Radio reported the assassination, and the director of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, issued a statement: “This is horrible news that has left us deeply shocked and, of course, desperately sorry.” He noted that the incident, occurring “on the eve of a papal trip to the Middle East” (i.e., Cyprus), illustrated “the urgent need for the solidarity of the universal Church to support the Christian communities” living in that region.

The semi-official Turkish news agency Anadolu promptly and correctly reported that Murat Altun had worked as the bishop’s driver for four and a half years, and that he had recently sought psychiatric treatment. It quoted Hatay governor Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz as saying that the conflict appeared to be “a personal matter” without religious or political motive. “Nevertheless we will investigate the crime very thoroughly.” The governor said that he had been well acquainted with the bishop and was deeply distressed.

Other reports in the Turkish media were contradictory and confusing. Did Bishop Padovese die of his wounds at the hospital or in the ambulance along the way? The newspaper Hürriyet announced that Murat Altun came from a Catholic family; although his father and other relatives had been employed for decades by Catholic institutions, and Murat had attended Christian schools, they are, in fact, all Muslims.

On June 4 Murat Altun was formally charged with murder. A trial should clarify the circumstances of the crime, but it may never fully explain the motives. The police quoted testimony that the accused man had been “depressed, violent, full of threats.” Milliyet reported that he had told police that he had acted on a “divine revelation.” Cumhuriyet quoted Altun as saying: “I wanted to kill the Pope, but nothing came of it.”

The small but close-knit Catholic community was reeling from the heavy blow. Some wondered whether the sudden change in the driver’s demeanor was due to alcohol or substance abuse. Others, recalling similar acts of violence against Christians in Turkey in recent years, especially the murder of Father Andrea Santoro in Trabzon in 2006, were skeptical about the plea of mental instability and asked whether the confessed killer had ties to Islamist militant groups.

On Friday, June 4, while traveling by plane from Rome to Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI was interviewed, and the first question concerned the slain apostolic vicar. The Holy Father answered, “Naturally I am deeply saddened by the death of Msgr. Padovese, who also contributed much to the preparation of the synod” (the Synod of Bishops on the Church in the Middle East, scheduled for October 2010). “We commend his soul to the goodness of the Lord…. We have very little information about the facts surrounding the episode; what is certain is that it was not a religious or political assassination, it was a personal issue.”

Vatican commentator Sandro Magister observed that the Pope’s journey to Cyprus was a pastoral, not a political visit, and that therefore he was right in not allowing the trip to be “held hostage” to that tragic incident. Subsequent revelations, however, prompted one Church leader in Turkey to voice the opinion that the Pope had been “ill advised.”

The results of the autopsy, released on June 7, showed that Bishop Padovese had been stabbed at least 20 times, all over his body, with eight wounds in the area of the heart. He died, however, of a slit throat. His head was almost completely severed from his body, attached only by the skin at the back of the neck.

According to an account by Geries Othman for AsiaNews (affiliated with PIME, the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), a witness who worked as the bishop’s assistant testified that the bishop was stabbed in the house but had the strength to go outdoors and call for help. When he fell to the ground in the yard, he was decapitated.

Neighbors said they heard the bishop cry out, but they also heard Murat shouting, immediately after the murder, “I killed the great Satan! Allah Akbar [Allah is great]!” The modus operandi was identical to that of members of Islamic fundamentalist groups as they carry out executions.

Ercan Eris, the lawyer representing the Catholic Church, argues that there is no medical certificate attesting to the young man’s mental disability; he had complained of depression, but it may have been a stratagem for his later defense. On Monday, June 7, the vicar general of Anatolia, Father Domenico Bertogli, asked Turkish authorities to “investigate fully a homicide that cannot be classified as the work of a mentally unstable man.” That same day the lawyer representing Murat Altun offered another justification for his client’s actions: Padovese was homosexual and Murat was a victim who was “forced to suffer abuse”; the killing was an act of “legitimate defense.” Catholic leaders in Turkey dismissed the explanation as a groundless attempt to manipulate public opinion.

The most startling new details about the case were uncovered by Filippo di Giacomo, a priest and journalist who writes regularly for L’UnitÀ and La Stampa. They were published in the Spanish daily El Pais: “A few hours before Padovese was assassinated, the Turkish government called him to tell him that the driver, whom they themselves had placed at his service four years ago, was now ‘out of their hands.’ In other words, he had embraced the fundamentalist cause…. Upon learning this, Padovese cancelled the tickets that he had reserved for the flight to Cyprus with Altun. He preferred to stay at home rather than to make the journey, for fear that his driver might take advantage of his proximity to the Pope to attack him.”

An immense crowd attended an ecumenical funeral service for Bishop Padovese on Monday afternoon, June 7, in the cathedral in Iskenderun. The apostolic nuncio, Msgr. Lucibello, presided. Among the concelebrants were the two surviving Latin-rite hierarchs of Turkey, the Armenian archbishop of Istanbul and the Maronite bishop of Antioch. Prayers were offered in Turkish, Italian, Armenian, Arabic, and Latin. Orthodox and Protestant clergy and local mufti joined in mourning their colleague and friend. Also present were representatives of local government, the mayor, the police chief, and members of Caritas Turkey and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences.

The homily was given by Metropolitan Archbishop of Izmir (Smyrna) Ruggero Franceschini, OFM Cap, a confrere of the deceased. (Capuchin Franciscan missions in Turkey go back to the 16th century.) He described Bishop Padovese as a close friend of the Turkish people, “a decent person” whose scholarly expertise in the patristic period was matched by his cordial commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. The preacher enumerated the charitable works undertaken by the late apostolic vicar of Anatolia: food aid to 70 needy families (all but one of them Muslim), collaboration in irrigation projects and catastrophe relief efforts, and his constant, generous care for the sick. He quoted a moving prayer offered by Cardinal Tettamanzi of Milan during the Mass of Corpus Christi on June 3: “A door and not a wall—that was the life of Bishop Padovese, often under police escort and yet so free in proclaiming the Gospel in arid land….”

After a procession through Iskenderun, the remains of Bishop Padovese were shipped to his native Milan. They were received by the Capuchins on June 10 at Milan-Malpensa Airport and then taken to a forensic medical institute for a second autopsy ordered by the Italian courts.

On June 14, Cardinal Tettamanzi and 40 bishops from all over Europe concelebrated in the Basilica of Milan a funeral Mass for Bishop Padovese, which was attended by more than five thousand people. The Holy See was represented by Archbishop Edmond Farhat, former apostolic nuncio in Turkey. In his homily the cardinal eulogized the deceased bishop as “a friend of peace” and “brother of all people.” “The life of Luigi Padovese…was a grain of wheat that fell to the earth and silently bears fruit. He was made a grain of wheat by becoming the leader of the Church of Anatolia, a minority Church that is often suffering and put to the test, where he strove ceaselessly to make room for dialogue and encounters between cultures and religions, and among Christians themselves.”

Whereas at the funeral in IskenderunArchbishop Franceschini had impliedthat Bishop Padovese’s death was a “martyrdom,” the Pope’s message of condolences and Cardinal Tettamanzi’s homily were more cautiously worded. In keeping with the wishes of the deceased, his body was buried in a family grave in Milan.

On June 12 the Vatican announced the appointment of Archbishop Franceschini as apostolic administrator of Anatolia; he previously served as the apostolic vicar of the jurisdiction from 1993 until Bishop Padovese’s appointment in 2004.


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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.