VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Turkish government’s decision to allow the Orthodox patriarch to celebrate a liturgy at the ancient Panagia Soumela Monastery near Trabzon was a sign of hope for all members of Turkey’s Christian minority, said a U.S. Jesuit priest.
“The present government has promised they really will pay attention to the needs of the Christian minority; the Christians have said we want concrete signs, so this is a positive step in the right direction,” Jesuit Father Thomas Michel, who lives and works in Ankara, the Turkish capital, told Catholic News Service.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrated the Orthodox liturgy for the feast of the Dormition of Mary Aug. 15 at the Panagia Soumela Monastery, which was founded in 386.
The current building, which is maintained by the government as a museum, dates from the 13th century. It was closed in 1923 after most Greeks were forced out of Turkey and most Turks were forced out of Greece under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne.
Father Michel, who has ministered in Trabzon, where an Italian priest was murdered in 2006, said the Panagia Soumela Monastery “is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s in a pine forest with waterfalls and the monastery is perched on a cliff.”
In a telephone interview from Ankara, Father Michel said, “Christians here don’t feel persecuted by the government,” but there are church properties confiscated by the government in the 1920s — including an Orthodox seminary near Istanbul and the Catholic Church of St. Paul in Tarsus — that Christians would like to be able to use again.
“In any society with a vast majority of the population belonging to one religion, someone will discriminate against the minority,” Father Michel said, but most Turks are open-minded and respectful of people’s different beliefs.
“In my discussions with Turks, they always emphasize the fact that Turkey is a place where you can find a mosque, a synagogue and a church side by side,” he said.
Turkey’s population is about 99 percent Muslim.
Meeting Kenan Gursoy, Turkey’s ambassador to the Vatican, in January, Pope Benedict XVI asked that the country grant full legal recognition to the Catholic Church. While Turkish Catholics enjoy religious freedom, he said, the church as a whole “is waiting for civil juridical recognition” under Turkish law.
The lack of legal status sometimes has made it difficult for the Catholic Church and other Christian communities in Turkey to own and buy property officially and to build or operate churches, schools and hospitals.
Gursoy had told the pope that Europe would benefit culturally, economically and politically from having Turkey as a member of the European Union; since Turkey became an EU candidate country in 1999, it has been asked to undertake reforms to improve its human rights record, including its treatment of religious minorities.