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A Visit to Turkey and Its Christian Communities

Twice a year, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches convokes a meeting of Catholic donor agencies to exchange information and coordinate assistance to the churches under its jurisdiction. During the meetings in January and June 2005, participants received reports on the situation of Christians in Turkey. A by-product of these discussions was a visit to the Republic of Turkey from 31 August to 6 September 2005 by a small delegation of donor agency representatives.

Dr. Otmar Oehring of Missio Aachen led the delegation that included Nadim Amman of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Marie-Ange Siebrecht of Church in Need, Father Leon Lemmens of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and me.

Our fact-finding mission was concerned with the condition of Christian minorities in the country.

Cultural roots. The culture of modern Turkey – and urban Turkey is modern indeed – cannot be fully understood without familiarity with its ancient roots.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided the administration of his vast empire needed to be more centrally located. He built the great city of New Rome on a peninsula jutting into the Bosporus (a body of water dividing Asia from Europe), the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium.

Known for centuries as Constantinople (Constantine’s city), it was built to be a Christian capital, unlike old Rome, a pagan city with a Christian veneer.

Constantinople continued for a thousand years as the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, a pluralistic polity of cultures, languages and peoples, until its conquest by the Ottoman Turks, one of the many nomadic tribes of Central Asia who migrated West and eventually embraced Islam.

For centuries, Turkish tribes had pushed against the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. Gradually, their control extended over large segments of Anatolia, the heartland of Byzantium and modern Turkey.

It culminated with the conquest of Constantinople, which the Ottomans called Istanbul, by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

Though culturally and ethnically heterogeneous, the Byzantine Empire’s state religion was Christianity. For the Turkish tribes, Byzantium was the enemy. So, from antiquity, there was reason for them to view Christians with suspicion and hostility. Members of the Christian ethnic communities that continued to live within the lands of the Ottoman Empire as subjects of the sultan – respected by the Muslim Turks as “People of the Book” – were treated as foreigners.

The Byzantine emperors often gave commercial concessions within their territory to Italian city-states such as Genoa and Venice. (The presence of the Latin Church in Asia Minor dates to that period.) European Christian governments pressured the sultan to make similar concessions. In 1535, the first of the “capitulation” agreements gave France a protectorate over the Christians of the Ottoman Empire.

Even so, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire continued. The enemy was still Christian – the Christian states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Turks came close to overwhelming the West, but were stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

During the 19th century, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, European powers wrested more and more concessions from the sultan, which led to the establishment of privileged enclaves within the empire, if not entire autonomous regions. Prominent among those wielding political and economic power were Catholic France, Protestant Britain and Orthodox Russia – all of which further reinforced the negative image of Christians.

Modern Turkish nationalism is closely identified with Kemal Atatürk, whose 1922 revolution definitively reoriented Turkey. Although the country’s dominant peoples were Sunni Muslims, Atatürk established a strictly secular, European-facing modern state.

Historical suspicions of Christianity and the rigorous secularism of Atatuürk and his heirs are keys to understanding the basis of modern Turkish society. Unlike the Islamic countries of the Levant, where religion is the primary component of identity, in Turkey it is nationality.

Nationality, ethnicity and religion have complex interrelationships and tensions in Turkey – much like the situation in Israel. To be a Turkish citizen generally, but not always, means to be a Turk. To be a Turk and/or a Turkish citizen generally, but not always, means to be a Muslim.

Armenians. The evening of our arrival in Istanbul, we were warmly received by the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople and all Turkey, Mesrob II. He is one of the two patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church – the patriarch of Jerusalem is the other – under the leadership of Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Patriarch Mesrob generously spent two hours with us, offering unique perspectives about the conditions of Christians in the country and their appropriate behavior vis-à-vis the Turkish state.

Historically, Armenians were very numerous in what is now the eastern part of Turkey. During World War I the Turkish government forcibly displaced them from their ancient homelands. Armenians have bitter memories of the violence and deaths of those tragic days – an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1918, although this is disputed by Turkey.

There is still a small Armenian community living in Turkey, centered in Istanbul. Most belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church; there is also a tiny Armenian Catholic archdiocese in Istanbul with a recently appointed Armenian-Lebanese bishop, George Khazoumian, and a few priests ministering to the faithful.

Patriarch Mesrob, although an ethnic Armenian, was born in Turkey and is a Turkish citizen. He is very clear about his identity as an Armenian, a Christian and a Turkish citizen and resists any implication that a Christian is a foreigner or any less patriotic than his fellow Muslim citizens.

Because of the secular character of the Turkish state, churches – in fact all religions – do not and cannot have legal identity as such. In the West, this is often judged a denial of fundamental rights, although it may be understandable in the Turkish context.

The only mechanism in Turkish law for Christians – or other religions, including Islam – to have legal personality for their institutions is that of the community foundation. Such an entity may hold property and function legally. However, this does not mean the bishop or similar church leader has legal authority over these institutions.

Although this is perceived as crippling by some church leaders who find their jurisdiction limited and their authority indirect, others, like Patriarch Mesrob, do not feel these dispositions of Turkish law prevent the successful functioning of his community.

Greeks. Since the fifth century, the bishop of Constantinople, New Rome, was second in honor to the bishop of (old) Rome – the pope. With the growing separation between East and West, culminating in the schism of 1054, the patriarch of Constantinople emerged as the voice of Orthodoxy and eventually as ecumenical patriarch. He is first among the many national patriarchs of the various Byzantine Orthodox countries.

Paradoxically, this eminent leader of the Orthodox Church has hardly any local flock of his own.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which delineated the borders of modern Turkey and Greece, appealed for more ethnically homogeneous states. It also called for the exchange of more than 1.25 million Greeks in Anatolia for a half million Muslims in Greece.

Overnight Anatolian Greek communities settled hundreds of years before the birth of Christ were depopulated, creating a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions (which prompted the founding of CNEWA). Istanbul’s sizable Greek community, exempt from the treaty, remained in the city until anti-Greek riots in 1955 resulted in another exodus, leaving only a few hundred families under the care of the ecumenical patriarch.

Metropolitan Meliton, Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod, welcomed us to the Phanar (an Istanbul neighborhood from which the headquarters of the ecumenical patriarchate takes its name). The metropolitan is in charge of the legal affairs of the patriarchate. He daily wrestles with the vexing challenges of the confiscation or restrictions upon the use of the church’s properties and the limitations of its activities.

Unresolved for years, for example, is the status of the patriarchate’s theological school on the island of Halki in the Sea of Marmara, part of the metropolitan region of Istanbul. Closed by the Turkish government in 1971, the ecumenical patriarchate is forbidden to reopen what was its principal seminary. Why? Because of historical animosities between Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslim Turks? Because of the general Turkish limitation on religious schooling in secular Turkey?

Metropolitan Meliton ushered us into the private office of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Fluent in many languages, he addressed us in English. With great affability and informality, Patriarch Bartholomew spoke with us about the particular conditions of his church and the general status of Orthodox-Catholic relations.

The ecumenical patriarch knows Rome well; as a young priest he completed graduate studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. He told us of his invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to visit the Phanar this year on the occasion of the patronal feast of St. Andrew and of his hopes for the occasion.

The process of invitation was a lesson in Turkish sensibilities. That the ecumenical patriarch invited the pope was ostensibly merely a religious matter. But the pope is also a head of state and, as such, needs to be invited by the government to visit Turkey. Perhaps the government was not consulted beforehand by the patriarch; perhaps the date selected was inconvenient for the Turkish authorities. In any case, the government chose to invite the pope, but for a visit in 2006.

An exchange of visits between the pope in Rome and the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul has become the happy custom of both churches since the historic embrace between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI on the Mount of Olives during the pope’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964.

Assyro-Chaldeans. Although there has been a Chaldean jurisdiction in the south central Turkish city of Diyarbakir for centuries, regional social and political pressures have forced most Assyro-Chaldean Christians to emigrate; the few remaining now live in Istanbul.

The guarantees and legal protections assured to official religious minorities by the Treaty of Lausanne – Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Jews – were not extended to the Assyro-Chaldeans and others. Even the teaching of their native tongue, Syriac, is illegal.

In the aftermath of the recent wars in Iraq, thousands of Iraqis, a relatively high percentage of whom are Assyro-Chaldean Christians, fled to Turkey. At present, there are between 3,000 to 4,000 Iraqi refugees living temporarily in Istanbul.

In the heart of the busy Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoglu – and right across the street from the recently bombed British Embassy – there is a small church, once Byzantine Catholic and now Chaldean, on the ground floor of a multistoried downtown building.

Dressed in a shirt and tie, as is the custom of most Turkish Christian clergy, a young and personable Msgr. François Yakan, Vicar of Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III, greeted us at the door and showed us his small church. Then he took us upstairs to his apartment where we spent a few hours of animated conversation with him and his wife.

Like the Armenian patriarch, Msgr. François is a Turkish citizen by birth and feels similarly that he has found a reasonable modus vivendi for himself and his Chaldean community in secular, Islamic Turkey. The seat of his Chaldean Patriarchal Vicariate is organized, as commercial ventures often are, as a joint-stock company (not a community foundation). This enables the work of the church to be carried out.

The long-term members of his church are well-established businessmen in Istanbul. Through their generosity and with little outside help, Msgr. François has been able to care for the tremendous influx of Iraqis, most of whom arrive in Istanbul destitute. He hopes to remodel and expand his existing building to serve the refugees and the whole Assyro-Chaldean community.

Syrians. Although historically south central Turkey was the heartland of Syrian Christians, there are few remaining due to the same social and political pressures experienced by the Assyro-Chaldeans. The seat of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate has long since been relocated from Turkey to Damascus, Syria.

A modest number of Syrian Orthodox and Catholics live in Istanbul. Our delegation spent one evening in Istanbul’s Ayazpasa neighborhood visiting with Chorbishop Yusuf Sag, Syrian Catholic Patriarchal Vicar, Zeki Basatemir, President of the vicariate’s Council of Administration, and other members of the community.

Chorbishop Sag and his wife live at the Syrian Catholic pastoral center – Sacred Heart Church and Convent – once a school of the Jesuits, but expropriated without compensation by the government. Subsequently, the national treasury department decided the Syrian Catholic Church Foundation could have use of the former school free of charge for 99 years.

Located in an attractive residential neighborhood, the multistoried building –under renovation with some help from CNEWA – overlooks the heart of old Istanbul, the Bosporus, the Asian part of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara. Chorbishop Sag and Mr. Basatemir showed us rooms once used by Archbishop Giuseppe Roncalli – later Pope John XXIII – when he was apostolic delegate to Turkey. He remains a respected and beloved figure in Turkish society.

The well-furnished building serves as a religious, cultural and social center for the Syrian Catholic community. It is administered by a lay council and is used not only for the liturgy but also for parish meetings, receptions, celebrations, education and youth activities.

The Syrian community, like the Assyro-Chaldean, is well-established in Istanbul. Its members are Turkish citizens, mostly business and professional people, and are loyal to their church and traditions.

The evening ended with a late-night supper in a seaside restaurant, hosted by the parish council, which left the delegation not only stuffed with delicious food but also with an unforgettable memory of Syrian hospitality and fraternity.

Latins. The Latin or Roman Catholic presence in Turkey is more extensive, visible and foreign than the Eastern Catholic.

There are three Latin ecclesiastical jurisdictions: the Archdiocese of Izmir, the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul and the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia. Each has a residential bishop, Western European by birth and drawn from a Latin religious congregation.

It is these Latin congregations, both male and female, that provide most of the pastoral and educational services in the three jurisdictions. They are usually identified as missionary – that is to say, in the best sense, their members have left their homelands to work in a foreign and overwhelmingly Islamic country, serving in love and giving a personal witness of fidelity to the teachings of Jesus.

These religious workers, almost all foreign nationals, are also associated historically with the Western European “colonial” presence in Turkey. Many staff and maintain French and Italian churches, built after the political concessions granted to the major Western European powers by the Ottoman Empire.

In Istanbul, we met the Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul, Bishop Louis Pelâtre, a French national of the Assumptionist congregation who has worked many years in Turkey. The seat of his vicariate, first established in 1742, is at 83 Papa (Pope) Roncalli Street! His large residence is part of a complex of older church buildings in the Harbiye quarter, including the offices of Caritas, the Catholic school of Our Lady of Sion and the Istanbul residence of the apostolic nuncio.

The Istanbul vicariate is the largest of the three Latin jurisdictions with 12 parishes in Istanbul and 1 in Ankara, several chapels and shrines and 32 priests – mostly Franciscan, Assumptionist, Dominican and Jesuit. The vicariate also has 8 schools, 4 rest homes, 3 hospitals and 1 clinic serving all without discrimination in the Istanbul metropolitan region.

Bishop Pelâtre generously shared his long pastoral experience with us, with a certain admixture of both frustration and resignation when speaking of the challenges faced by his church in modern, secular, Islamic Turkish society.

We left Istanbul to fly to the western port city of Izmir, ancient Smyrna, where we were greeted by the Latin Catholic Archbishop of Izmir, Ruggero Franceschini, a Capuchin Franciscan. He brought us to the seat of his archdiocese at the downtown church of St. Polycarp. It is the oldest existing Catholic church in Izmir. Built in 1690 for the French-speaking community, the church replaced an older structure. The newer church was enlarged and restored in 1898, 80 years after the reestablishment of the archdiocese.

The church and the adjoining office, residence and hospice are nestled in a modest-size, tree-filled compound, surrounded by tall office buildings and modern hotels.

Capuchin Franciscans have a long history of service in Turkey dating back to the 16th century. Like their confreres in the Levant, the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, they have persevered with their service and witness through the centuries.

Archbishop Franceschini has served in Turkey for many years. He was named apostolic vicar of Anatolia and then, after a term as provincial of his Capuchin order in Parma, Italy, returned to his present position in Izmir. One of his concerns in both posts has been to provide housing and hospitality for pilgrims visiting sites and places associated with biblical and early Christianity. Hopefully, if he builds it, they will come.

The Izmir archdiocese has nine parishes. The archbishop took us to visit two of them. We went first to Izmir’s Bornova neighborhood where Holy Name of Mary Church in its small compound hides behind a row of shops with a gate facing a busy city square. The church, centrally located and near a major university, has great potential, according to Archbishop Franceschini, but because of its very elderly and inactive pastor it is closed except for morning Mass and is relatively invisible to passersby.

St. John the Baptist Church in the poorer Buca quarter offered a striking contrast.

Its dynamic young pastor, Capuchin Father Marco Dondi – who also serves as chancellor of the diocese – has refurbished his old church and is engaged in many works of social service. His openness and linguistic fluency encourage cautious inquiries about the faith from some in the neighborhood. However, a conversion from Islam to Christianity bears a heavy social burden; Christian ethnic Turks are almost nonexistent.

It is hard to know how many Turks have a practical interest in Christianity. During the last few years many Evangelicals have begun to distribute religious literature in some of the larger Turkish cities, and many small “free church” communities have sprung up. However, generally the ethnic Turk remains Muslim.

Another flight took us to the southern city of Adana to visit the Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, also an Italian Capuchin Franciscan, Bishop Luigi Padovese. Pastoral care in his 11-year-old vicariate extends to five small communities, “mission stations,” widely dispersed over central and eastern Turkey. He is assisted by 9 priests, 1 deacon, 1 religious brother and 8 religious sisters.

Bishop Padovese, a theologian and until last year President of the Franciscan Institute of Spirituality of the Pontifical Antonianum University in Rome, had been a frequent visitor to Turkey over the years because of his engagement in ecumenical dialogue.

An hour and a half drive took us to the seat of his vicariate, Annunciation Church in the city of Iskenderun, named after Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian Emperor Darius III in 333 B.C. in a famous battle nearby. The large parish compound serves as the bishop’s headquarters and as a hospice for pilgrims and visitors staffed by three sisters of the Maria Bambina congregation.

A 30-minute drive further south into the province of Hatay took us to the vicariate’s mountain-top catechetical and retreat center in Güzelyalya, where we stopped briefly before continuing toward the Syrian border to visit Antakya, site of the ancient city of Antioch.

Two millennia ago, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were the three greatest cities of the Roman Empire. It was in Antioch, the Acts of the Apostles tells us, that the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.

Although a thriving center of early Christianity and the gateway to the East, the city was destroyed in antiquity by repeated earthquakes and floods. With the exception of a grotto associated with St. Peter, once used as a church and now maintained as a government museum, there are hardly any traces of Antioch’s ancient Christian history or of the Crusader principality of the same name.

Christian Antioch lives on in the memory of its great saints like Ignatius, Theophilus, Babylas, John Chrysostom and Simon Stylites the younger. Five Christian patriarchs – Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic and Maronite – still proudly bear the title “of Antioch.”

The principal, though small, Christian community in Antakya belongs to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch – the seat of which is now in Damascus. There is also a Syrian Orthodox and Latin Catholic presence. The Latin Church of Sts. Peter and Paul is located in the center of the town, which, of course, is now overwhelmingly Muslim.

Ecumenical relations in Antakya are excellent. Since 1988 both Orthodox and Catholic communities celebrate the great feasts with a common calendar. Families are interrelated and socially there are no distinctions.

Our visit to the Anatolia vicariate concluded with a three-hour drive back through Iskenderun and Adana to Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul. The church that commemorated his presence there is now a state museum; Italian Sisters of the Figlie della Chiesa Congregation, three of whom live nearby, are ready to welcome the infrequent pilgrim.

European Union. In Turkey’s capital city of Ankara (in the region of ancient Galatia), the country’s relation with Europe is a dominant concern. The revolution of Kemal Atatürk oriented Turkey toward Europe and it still looks that way. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1951.

At the European Union summit on 17 December 2004 a decision was taken to begin the multiyear process of accession negotiations with Turkey on 3 October 2005, even though certain criteria concerning the rule of law, fundamental rights and respect for and protection of minorities were not being fulfilled.

Although millions of Turks live and work in Western Europe, especially in Germany, the challenge of culturally integrating an Islamic population of 70 million people into the “Christian” West is formidable.

The draft accession negotiating framework consists of 35 distinct chapters each concerned with a variety of topics, including free movement of goods, workers and capital; company and intellectual property law; financial services; rural development; fundamental rights; and justice, freedom and security. These chapters, however, make no explicit reference to the issues of religious freedom and the legal status of non-Muslim minorities in Turkish law – issues of great concern to many Europeans and most Turkish Christians.

Religious minority rights and the status of Christians in Turkey were a topic of discussion with the two Jesuit priests who hosted our delegation’s visit to Ankara. They were referenced also in briefings by Ambassador Paul Poudade of France and Archbishop Edmond Farhat, Apostolic Nuncio in Turkey and Turkmenistan.

Frank Spengler of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a political foundation of the German Christian Democratic Party, offered an in-depth briefing to our group about the background to and prospects for the accession negotiations with the European Union.

The opening of accession negotiations is the fruit of a 40-year process: In 1963, Turkey’s eligibility was recognized; formal application was made in 1987; Turkey was declared a candidate for EU membership in 1999; and in 2002 the country was declared “eligible.”

Although major legislative reforms have been made in Turkey better to prepare the country for European membership, there is questioning by some European governments if full membership will ever be feasible in light of huge cultural, social and economic differences.

We were also briefed about the same topic by two political affairs officers of the delegation of the European Commission to Turkey, Sema Kilicer and Serap Ocak, with a special focus on minority rights.

Our discussion touched on concerns for full religious freedom including the granting of juridical status to churches and autonomy for the religious personnel and institutions necessary for their religious, educational and social work.

Harald Schindler, First Secretary in the Legal and Consular Department of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, gave us some additional interesting insights over an informal evening meal. He seemed optimistic about the process of legal reformation and social change in Turkey and the possibility of its eventual, successful integration into Europe.

Conclusion. Echoing the great vision of Saul of Tarsus articulated in I Corinthians, the famous Jesuit paleontologist, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, described the trend of modern society and the direction of the creative, evolutionary process in terms of convergence.

He coined the expression “noosphere,” to name the enveloping, growing web of ideas, interconnections and interactions in which all the peoples of the world live. As this process of convergence dissolves traditional divisions of tribalism, ethnicity, nationality, religion, social status and culture, small wonder there are stresses, reactions and hostilities.

Although our fact-finding visit to Turkey particularly focused on some of the immediate stresses, reactions and hostilities experienced by its Christian religious minorities and on their concerns, it also clearly revealed a complex, ancient and dynamic society fully engaged in a process of integration with the world community.Not all Europeans favor Turkish membership in the European Union nor do all Turks. Atatürk has his heirs and his opponents.

I found it interesting that many political theoreticians and leaders – who deal with the art of the possible – seemed to display more optimism concerning the future development of Turkish society, its relationship to Europe and the status of its religious minorities than do some of the religious leaders.

I also felt as a North American participant in an otherwise European delegation perhaps a bit more sanguine about the possibilities of secular, modern, multicultural Turkey.

Like the modern suspension bridges that join European and Asian Istanbul into one great modern metropolis, Turkey sees itself bridging the divides of geography and history between Europe and the Middle East. Hopefully, while maintaining its secular identity, it can also help bridge the cultural and religious divides between the traditional Muslim and Christian worlds.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern is Secretary General of CNEWA.

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