Saint Paul is the source of opportunities we cannot miss. I say this thinking especially about Christians who live in Turkey. For example, the arrival of pilgrims for the Pauline Year raised greater awareness among Turkish authorities about religious tourism. We have had more than 470 groups come to Tarsus, a total of 29,000 pilgrims, not to mention those who came on their own . . . . It is important to preserve the memory of Saint Paul where he was born; however, there is nothing there to remember him; absolutely nothing. It is vital for the local population, because the constant presence of Christian pilgrims gives Christianity a certain visibility, but also for Christians who, when they see these places, are in a better position to understand Paul’s hard work and what it means to be a missionary in this land.
What does it mean for you? What does it mean today to be priest and a bishop in Turkey?
It is hard. Not only are we few in numbers, but we are also unevenly spread out. Except for two bishops, the other five live in Istanbul. And the distances to cover are huge. Our pastoral work in Anatolia is practically concentrated in the south; in the North, there are a couple of communities, with a minimal Christian presence. Yet, we do try to maintain a Christian presence. In Trabzon for example, where Fr Andrea Santoro was killed, there is a tiny community; there are also some Georgians and Orthodox Christians who join the liturgy, also because ours are the only churches that have stayed opened on the Turkish side of the Black Sea.
What do you exactly mean when you say that it is important to maintain a presence? In what way does it matter to stay with so few people, alone, among a mass of people who appear to be indifferent, if not outright hostile . . . .
The problem for those who come to Turkey is, except for the big cities, to be a presence, a witness, with much less pastoral activity because of the size. Our mission is one of presence, even though it is better to avoid the term “mission” because the word itself can be easily misunderstood in Turkey. Those who do not know its Christian meaning are afraid of it. In Turkish, the word mission is seen right away in colonialist terms. Let us not forget that Christianity here is viewed as a foreign body, which in the past threatened or weakened the country’s identity. Turkish unity was achieved on the back of minorities, who had to give up their languages and culture in favour of a single Turkish national identity.
What is the main problem faced by minorities?
The law is the problem. De facto, Catholics are a minority in Turkey, but the Catholic Church does not exist, legally speaking. In the wake of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, Turkish authorities recognised, arbitrarily in our view, only ethnic-religious minorities: Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syriacs, Jews and even Bulgarians. These were and are recognised minorities. Given the fact that, unlike the other groups, the Catholic Church is not an ethnic-religious minority, it was not recognised. In reality however, Roman Catholics are present in the land. We have found a compromise that has led to the recognition of existing properties (churches, colleges, schools, charities, etc.). However, as a minority, we have never been recognised by the state and are not recognised even now. This is the source of many problems for us, because simultaneously we exist and do not exist.
In any event, even recognised ethnic-religious minorities face identical problems. Priests and bishops must be Turkish citizens, but since seminaries are closed and are not allowed to re-open, the future of these churches remains an open question. How will they continue to exist if there is no generational replacement in the country? Existing laws are progressively bringing about the death of Christianity. The problem is especially grim for Syriacs and Armenians, but also for the Orthodox. As you know, the Patriarch of Constantinople must be of Turkish nationality—he is chosen by the Synod among three possible candidates, but then who elects him is the governor of Istanbul.
In short, based on its definition of secularism, which should change in my view, the state keeps minorities under its tutelage.
What contributions are being made by Muslim currents that view secularism differently from that of the Turkish state? Can they bring Christians greater freedom?
Turkish-style secularism, which is at the foundation of the Turkish state, has shaped modern Turkey. Thanks to Atatürk, Turkey was remade without the burdens of the past. The country has become something very different from what it was when religion was all-powerful, and society was under its thumb, with a sultan who was also caliph and paramount religious authority. . . . Turkish secularism was a reaction to what came before. Atatürk’s ideal was French-style laïcité, in which religion and public affairs were clearly separate. In reality, the situation did not evolve in that direction. Turkish secularism is one of a kind because ultimately Turkey’s Sunni Islam, to which 75 per cent of Turks belong, is under direct state control. Turkey in fact has a Ministry of Religion, and a director of Religious Affairs who is directly accountable to the prime minister. Since religion is tied to the state, all community leaders, the muftis, are civil servants and paid by the state. This way, the state ensures that secular rule is maintained, and that religious leaders are chosen among individuals who are interested in maintaining the secular nature of the state, whilst performing the duties of their religious office as well. This is the situation in Turkey, where secularism means state control of religion.
So, based on your experience, what is the real face of Turkish Islam?
Turkish Islam is perhaps the most pluralistic there is. One of the first steps Atatürk took was to suppress all of the country’s Sufi religious confraternities. Only now are they beginning a revival even though they are not recognised. Among them, several have a pacifist religious orientation, if one may say so . . . . They seek dialogue and contacts with Christians and also recognise the Christian presence as an uphill journey towards God and the transcendental. This is why a moderate Islam exists in Turkey. And its moderation is also the outcome of political changes brought about by Atatürk.
You almost seem optimistic about the near future . . .
The path is still long. Above all, we must wait and see if words are followed by deeds. For me, the test will be the attitude towards the church in Tarsus—whether they will allow Christians to run the building as we requested—and the Theological Academy of the Orthodox Patriarchate. For years, foreign leaders who come to Turkey and meet the patriarch have also put pressure on Turkish authorities to allow the Theological Academy to re-open, and so guarantee a future to the almost non-existent Orthodox Church. Sadly, it is always words, but no actual facts on the ground.
In Turkey, what counts are facts, not words! I realise that the situation is difficult, that the government has to deal with political opponents who might want to exploit the fact of letting Christians have a church. But I ask myself. How come, a democratically elected government, with a majority in parliament, cannot take highly symbolic actions regarding minorities?
Even Turkey’s desire to join the European Community has not changed things?
The situation is quite complex. Our demands have all been forgotten and we have had no reply. As a Bishops’ conference, we wrote once to the prime minister. We did the same as presidents of the Conference of South-East Europe, but we got no answer, not even an acknowledgment that they got our letter. We fall completely below the radar screen. On 15 August 2009, the prime minister met representatives of the country’s religious minorities, except for the Catholic Church, which of course “does not exist”. And what did this meeting achieve? A bit of visibility, perhaps, but in practice, what?
Does the responsibility for this situation lie with the authorities or with the people, who do not react?
I think it is up to the authorities to take a more decisive course of action to change people’s attitudes. There is a built-in inertia that even when people are open to us, and I see this personally, they end up hitting a stonewall in the bureaucracy. . . .
Can you help us understand the type of discrimination experienced by minorities? Seen from the West, they are hard to see, or perhaps sometimes we’d rather not see them . . . .
Here again is the important example of the church of Tarsus. The state seized it. Originally, it was Armenian; later, it was used by the Orthodox until the 1930s and 1940s. What we asked is that the building, which has such a high symbolic value for us Christians, be returned to Christian worship, which is what happened to two mosques. They were seized by the state, turned into museums, and then returned. We are not interested in owning the building (which belongs to the state), but we would like to have a place where Christians can worship freely without the feeling of being in a museum. Just imagine this. The Pauline Year is over, and we get a note from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, and one from the director of the Tarsus Museum, telling us that the building is a museum and that we have to apply three days in advance to get a permit to celebrate a religious service inside it. Well, this is shows that there is clear desire to say that this is a museum . . . . Here is an example of discrimination, of constant chipping away and subtle hostility at our presence.
How did we get to the situation you describe? Whose responsibility is it?
This situation is the consequence of changes that have occurred in the last few years. I do not blame our faithful if they no longer fully grasp what it means to be Christian. After decades of discrimination, forced invisibility, a disappearing clergy, monasteries and other places for the consecrated life forced to close, no wonder they have a hard time nurturing their faith. It is natural that, in order to survive, they end up diluting the ways they lead a Christian life.
Certainly, this raises a question. Why is it, that where there were so many Christians, now there almost none? This is an irrefutable fact, and one that deserves an answer. One might deny that discrimination was ever practiced, but one still has to come up with an explanation for the disappearance of Christians.
Are there new Christians in this context?
There are some new Christians. I baptised a few Muslims but only after they went through a long catechumenate, because theirs must be a well-thought out choice of faith, and this requires that as would-be converts they be tested and tested to confirm not only their initial zeal but also their resolve to persevere.