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The Ending of a History

For persecuted Christians still living in Turkey, life is a daily struggle.

A report by a West German Catholic aid agency cites widespread persecution of Christians in Turkey and calls upon the international community to exert moral pressure on the authorities there to leave the dwindling religious minorities in peace.

“The Present Situation of Christians in Turkey,” the report, sponsored by Missio, the German pastoral mission agency, concedes, however, that the flight of Christians from portions of Turkey is “irreversible” at this point.

“It is necessary to recognize the end of a history,” the report says, “and to help the rest, who will leave anyway, to join their relatives as soon as possible.”

The West German observers predicted that of the 4,000 Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic Christians and 925 Chaldeans of Eastern Turkey, only 20 percent is likely to remain. They are among many confessions in Turkey, only a few of which have legal status. Even churches that are legal are subject to much state control and interference.

Observers charge the Turkish government with carrying out a “policy of decay and confiscation” of church centers.

The report was released following a 10-day visit to Turkey last summer by an ecumenical team under the leadership of Dr. Otmar Oering, deputy head of Missio’s Overseas Department.

“The discussions with representatives of Christian churches in Istanbul turn out to be a tightrope walk between fear and frankness,” the report states. “One gains the impression of a church culture which belongs in a museum, characterized by traditional liturgy and an apathetic and fatalistic acceptance of the situation… The thought of fighting for their constitutional rights is almost non-existent.” Difficulties with the government, in business and otherwise in society, are accepted in the oriental fashion and can only be avoided through bribery.

One exception is Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Yusuf Cetin. Though his Church does not enjoy legal status, Bishop Cetin has developed the beginnings of a modern parish ministry. He is not afraid of appearing in public in full episcopal robes, a privilege allowed only for the heads of the so-called Lausanne or legal churches. In office for only three years, Bishop Cetin has managed to visit about half of his community’s 2,000 families.

While the government tolerates Islamic educational programs in the schools, it frowns on Christian catechizing as “religious propaganda.” The observers document daily examples of discrimination against Christian children: of a young girl ostracized by her classmates and verbally abused because the teacher told the class that Christians are non-believers and that whoever associates with them defiles himself. “Parents are helpless,” the report continues, “and do not know how to react when, on top of this, their children come home and have to study Islamic religious literature which puts Christianity in a negative light. The main reason for the stream of refugees at present leaving western Turkey can be traced to this Islamic religious education program.”

Christians are given the status of “Non-Muslims” in their personal identification papers. As a consequence, it is not possible to be considered a Christian and an ethnic Turk at the same time. This results in being doubly inferior: as a non-Muslim and a non-Turk.

In the workplace, job opportunities are few, and virtually all public service positions are closed to Christians, further increasing the motive for flight. Christians serving in the military are said to be given the most difficult postings, such as on the Soviet border.

The West Germans noted that a group of Italian Capuchins it supports in the province of Hatay enjoys strong political protection through the Italian government and is making efforts to defend the rights of Christians. As foreigners, they are somewhat free of inner-Turkish pressures. In the south central city of Tarsus, for example, where St. Paul was born, the Capuchins were able to win back a ninth century Armenian church which had long been used as a military depot. In Mersin, also in the south, the friars are currently filing legal proceedings for the return of a Maronite church confiscated and converted into a mosque. Also in Mersin they are building a mission center for Chaldean refugees from the Iranian-Iraqi border areas.

On the most basic level, the Capuchins have been defenders of human rights. When it was discovered that a former Muslim working in the public service had converted to Christianity, the man was dismissed from his job, arrested and allegedly tortured for over a week. He was charged with “religious propaganda, activities against the state and collaboration with foreigners.”

The Capuchins were resolute in their representation of the man, however, and he was finally vindicated. The friars brought a second action against the local administration to have the man reinstated in his job. He also won this case, but he was placed in an inferior job at less pay.

At present the man and his family are under constant surveillance and their mail is censured. When a Missio representative asked the man whether his visit would mean new danger for him and his family, the man replied: “If they notice that no one shows any more interest in us, they would finish us off altogether.”

The Capuchins confirmed this: “Our frequent presence is the most effective prevention against illegal arrests or extremely unpleasant treatment.”

Church properties have been illegally seized, their monasteries and churches converted, demolished or left to decay. Some years ago, for example, the monastery at Dayr-ul-Zafaran was forcibly closed. Complaints by the local prior turned into criminal proceedings against him, and he was sent to prison for six months for catechizing. Several years ago the former seat of the Syrian Catholic patriarch was confiscated in order to turn its ancient facilities into a museum. The museum was never built and the church buildings were left to fall into ruin.

Christians are also becoming caught up in civil strife in eastern Turkey between the Turkish army and Kurdish insurgents and are leaving their homes in growing numbers. The relatively prosperous Christian village of Odabasi, for example, had 130 families in 1974. Today there are only 15, and those who remain are not enough in number to cultivate the fields and provide for their priest. The village will have to be abandoned. The situation is the same for all the villages of that region.

One man complained to western observers about the less-than-happy reception Turkey’s Christian refugees receive when they flee to Europe.

“When the Turkish Bulgarians come across the border they kiss the ground and are welcomed as countrymen,” he said. “When we come to you in Germany as Christians, please do the same.” While nationalities may differ, he said, common religious traditions should unite us as “fellow believers.”

Many Christian communities with histories spanning nearly two millennia are shadows of their former selves, with no expectation of rebuilding. Human concerns notwithstanding, the cultural aspect of Christianity in Turkey should not be forgotten. This may be the last chance to preserve part of the churches, monasteries and manuscripts developed since apostolic times.

There is no uniform image of Christianity in Turkey. While in the west the overall picture is one of stagnation and paralysis, the south presents an example of a new beginning through the Western churches. In eastern Turkey, the civil war between Turks and Kurds dominates the scene, with minority groups of Christians getting caught in between, The only option left is to secure an orderly retreat. The original homeland of the Syrian Orthodox Church has been lost.

The observers criticize nations, especially in the West, for supplying military and economic aid and making cultural agreements with Turkey while remaining detached from the question of human rights. It calls for diplomatic, economic and moral pressure to he exerted, especially when Turkey makes overtures to join the European Economic Community.

For the Church, the West German observers call for economic as well as spiritual support of the Christians, such as promoting small manufacturing firms, so poor are the prospects for making a living. Ecumenically, the Western churches must meet the challenge of integrating Christians already living in exile.

There are approximately 100,000 Christians left in Turkey. If they are to survive and continue to live there, churches and their aid societies are going to have to make a well-organized joint effort, the West Germans say, adding that such an effort “has to be carried out immediately.”

Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East.

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