Issues for the papal visit to Turkey  

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Issues for the papal visit to Turkey
A Turkish delight: Pope Benedict will not only have encounter with Orthodox Christianity, but also a so-called secular state that suppresses religion and religious minorities.

Sunday, November 26, 2006
Diego Contreras


The seventy-two hours Pope Benedict XVI will spend in Turkey, from November 28 until December 1, will mean not only a dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but also a step towards bettering relations with Orthodox Christianity. The pope’s visit will focus a spotlight on the Christian minority in Turkey. The papal visit will serve to focus world attention on Turkey as it attempts to burnish its international image and integrate itself with the European Union.


The Patriarch of Constantinople (of the city Turks call Istanbul), Bartholomew I, renewed an invitation to Benedict XVI that he had issued to John Paul II during a visit to Rome in June 2004. In reality, the pope’s trip had been planned for November 30, 2005. However, because the invitation had come from the patriarch, the local Turkish authorities were ill-disposed. Besides, the climate was less than serene. Still in the air were certain statements made by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the French newspaper “Le Figaro” in which he pointed out the effective lack of religious freedom in Turkey, among other things. The government of Turkey preferred to emit an invitation to the “head of the Vatican State” to visit the following year.

While the underlying reason for the visit is the encounter with Bartholomew I at the seat of the patriarchate, the ecumenical nature of the visit has taken a back seat over the last few weeks. The various media have focused, on the one hand, on tensions with Islam that emerged from the pope’s speech at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in which the pontiff recalled the words of Manuel Paleologos – Emperor of the defunct Byzantine Empire.

On the other hand, there are the prickly relations between the Holy See and the government of Turkey, symbolized by the absence of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be traveling to Europe for a meeting of NATO (however, Erdogan will greet the pope on the final day of the visit). The Holy See was informed many months ago of Erdogan’s absence.

A number of newspapers – writing with a good dose of exaggeration – have spoke of the “flight” of political figures before the papal visit, while also citing the eclipse of the Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs and of Istanbul’s municipal mayor. In any event, the visit (which, after all, is a state occasion) will be handled by the President of the Turkish republic, Ahmet Necder Sezer.


Ecumenism and personal relations

The defining moment of this fifth international trip by Benedict XVI will be the signing of a joint declaration with the Patriarch on November 30, the feast of St. Andrew – the patron saint of the Orthodox Church. The contents of the joint declaration are still unknown, but it is expected to go a long way towards improving relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The pope will also undertake a symbolic gesture: the unveiling of a plaque in memory of the three pontiffs who have visited the see of the Patriarch: Paul VI, in 1967; John Paul II, in 1979; the current Benedict XVI; and Cardinal Angelo Roncalli as papal nuncio to Turkey, who became Pope John XXIII. This is a detail that shows that personal relations have improved substantially over the last few decades, despite obstacles to institutional dialogue. In this regard, Patriarch Bartholomew recently revealed that his personal testimony will be included in the process of beatifying Pope John Paul II. This is, possibly, an event without precedent.

That some hard feelings may arise on the part of some of the other Orthodox churches cannot be denied: the Russian church in particular. Among these, the Patriarch of Constantinople is first in dignity, but not in fact. He is not “the Orthodox Pope.”

The importance of the Patriarch of Constantinople grew, paradoxically, during Ottoman rule which gave the patriarch jurisdiction over all Orthodox faithful living under Muslim rule (even at the same time that the influence of the other historic patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria waned in influence). But this subjection to Ottoman power, which implied a loss of autonomy, meant the provoking of autocephalous movements: it was thus that were born the Orthodox churches of Russia (1589), Greece (1833), Bulgaria (1870), and Albania (1937).


Christians: a vanishing minority

The number of Christians in what is now Turkey was greater at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was probably about 30% of the total population. But it was two dramatic events that were to almost completely exterminate them: the genocide of the Armenians (perpetrated by the Young Turks, who were more Masonic in inspiration than Muslim) and the exchange of Greeks and Turks that was sanctioned by the 1923 Treaty of Laussane. Therefore, the 1927 census counted 900,000 Christians or 7.5 percent of a total population of 12 millions.

Nowadays, Christians number approximately 50,000 of a total population of 72 million people in Turkey. The most numerous (about 100,000) are Armenian Orthodox. The Greek Orthodox, who are under the Patriarch Bartholomew, number about 5,000. There are also Syrian Orthodox, a few hundred Nestorians, and several thousands of Protestant Christians. Catholics of the Armenian, Latin, Chaldean, and Greek Catholic rites, number about 32,000.


Historical Memory

The above numbers indicate that the presence of Christianity in Turkey is in danger of becoming an antique curiosity. This is a very somber reality, given that this is land where eight ecumenical councils were held (Ephesus, Nicea, and Constantinople, among others). It was the native land of St. Paul and the backdrop for his preaching. It was also where the lives of other saints played out, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Martyrs of Sebaste. It was where the followers of Christ were first called ‘Christians’.

Christian heritage is fast disappearing. The shrinking number of Christians has been concomitant with the suppression of their places for worship. Almost all historic Christian churches are now museums, mosques, schools, or simple garages or granaries.

The contrast is notable especially on the island of Cyprus, the eastern sector of which has been occupied by Turkish forces since 1974 even while the other sector, mostly Greek, is a member-state of the European Union. In the part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey, there were once 250 Christian places of worship: today there are only four open.

The president of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, presented Pope Benedict XVI with very detailed photographic documentation of the situation. He emphasized that, unlike the Turkish sector, his government has actually maintained the Muslim heritage of the island having restored even the mosques. The November 10 meeting between the pontiff and the Cypriot president was deemed “a provocation” by the Turkish government.


Keeping the Faith

The depiction of Christianity’s plight in Turkey would be incomplete without alluding to another reality: the determination of many people to preserve the testimony of the Christian faith. This is in regard to the Christian communities that are surrounded by Muslim majorities. For example, there is the case of three Italian religious women who live in Tarsus, the native city of St. Paul. Ten years ago, they rented a small apartment where they have a small chapel. Twice each year, January 25 and June 29, there is celebrated a Mass in honor of St. Paul in what is now a church-museum. Attending the liturgy are Catholics of various rites who come from the southern part of Turkey.

Also visible in Turkey is the charitable work twenty-four Christian and Muslim volunteers of CARITAS – the worldwide Catholic humanitarian organization – to which many flocked after the disastrous earth tremors of 1999.

A little-known phenomenon is the community of Crypto-Christians. These are the descendants of Christian families who converted to Islam nearly a century ago in order to avoid humiliation and discrimination for their faith. Some have received catechism and have returned to the faith of their fathers. In any event, it is a reality that is quite circumscribed: in the last five years there have been 400 converts to the Christian faith. The accusations that emerge from time to time that Christians are pushing a proselytism that destabilize the country appear ridiculous.


A mosaic, not a monolith

In February 2006 was the assassination Fr. Andrea Santoro, a Roman Catholic priest from Italy who had lived in Turkey for five years. The young perpetrator of the crime received a sentence of twenty-five years in prison. It appears to have been an isolated deed that received no backing by Turkish politicians or public opinion, although a segment of the Turkish press printed improbable conjectures about possible Mafia ties to the murder. What cannot be denied, nonetheless, is certain anti-Christian propaganda, asserted in Turkish schools, that the Gospels have been manipulated by the papacy.

Despite a monolithic image that it likes to project to outsiders, Turkey is a patchwork of cultures, peoples, and religions. This refers not only to the Kurds. Even within Islam there is a very strong Alawite minority, (Ed. note: an offshoot of Shia Islam; President Assad of Syria is an Alawite) which takes its name from Ali – the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. It is calculated that there are 15 to 20 million Alawites. Appearing to outsiders as Sunnis (since non-Sunni Islamic minorities are not recognized), the Alawites follow a syncretistic faith that includes Christian and pre-Islamic elements, and attend their own prayer centers (where women are admitted) rather than mosques.


Secularism: sui generis

Islam has not been the official religion of the Turkish state since 1928. The constitution establishes the equality of all citizens without distinction, and outlaws religious discrimination.

Practical application of its secular principles, nevertheless, appears to be more complicated. The Turkish government supervises Muslim religious activities through its Department of Religious Affairs. The 76,000 Muslim religious leaders (imams who lead prayer) and the 9,700 muezzin who call the faithful from the minarets are employees of the state. Islamic teaching programs are controlled by the government. Religious activities may be carried out only in places of worship.

Another government department, the Office for Foundations, supervises the operations of religious minorities. The Catholic Church has not wanted to submit to this control; it is for this reason that it is not recognized as a religious institution. The Vatican’s ambassador, the papal nuncio, is a private citizen. Places of worship that go unused become property of the state. Since 1970, the Church has been asking for formal and legal recognition.

This is Turkish secularism in practice: it is not a separation of Mosque from State, but a subjugation of Religion to the State. This situation, as well as other reasons, explains why Christians in Turkey are so fervently applauding Turkey’s accession to the European Union: in order to be accepted, Turkey will have to modify its laws in areas such as the freedom of religion.


Translator: Martín M. Barillas

This entry was posted on Sunday, November 26, 2006 at Sunday, November 26, 2006 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

2 comments

p4p  

lotts of good info here. Gives some background that we in the west may have missed. I really enjoy this blog.Lotts of good info.
Thank you Heisan.Hope you stop back and see us soon.You brought some insights to our board and i look forward to your posts.
God Bless
p4p

November 28, 2006 at 7:21:00 PM PST
AndyS  

Great blog and wonderful posts.

November 28, 2006 at 7:56:00 PM PST

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