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Religion, Democracy, and the New Turkey: An interview with Mustafa Akyol, by Krista Tippett

While in Istanbul for the Halki Summit, Krista Tippett, a widely listened to public radio correspondent for the weekly show On Being, interviewed Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish columnist for Hurriyet Daily News.

Their conversation is a wonderfully rich discussion, including histories of religious toleration and secularism in the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk’s Turkey, and policies of the recent AKP government. Akyol spends considerable time speaking, favorably, about His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Halki Seminary, and the Greek Orthodox Church and its community in Istanbul.

Below are a few excerpts, with a link to the program, here:

Ms. Tippett: Another fascinating thing about Turkey is, as you say, I mean, you’ve written that Turkish identity is synonymous with Muslim-ness. But here we are also in what was, and still is, the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 300 million Christians worldwide. We’re going to see Bartholomew, the Patriarch, later in the week. So Turkey is also an experiment in Muslim-Christian encounter.

Mr. Akyol: Certainly the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew is actually an asset for Turkey. I respect him as a religious leader, a Christian leader. I think he is very wise and he’s, I think, very constructive when it comes to religious dialogue and international issues. I have great respect for the institution. Unfortunately, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been demonized by some Turks in the 20th century and not out of Islam most of the time, but out of nationalism.

Turkey’s political tensions with Greece, which were mostly focused on Cyprus, became a reason in Turkey to persecute or demonize the Greeks within Turkey. Although they were Turkish citizens, many people here perceived them as the fifth column of the neighboring Greece. And the fact that Turkish Muslims in Greece did not have full religious freedom became a reason to not give full religious freedom to our Greek citizens, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

So this was a vicious cycle that really traumatized Turkish Christians, partly Jews, in the 20th century. But actually in the new 21st century, we are moving away from that doomed legacy and AKP still has a lot of reasons to be criticized for on freedom of speech. One thing that the Erdogan government did was to get rid of some of these limitations on Turkish Christians and Jews.

Ms. Tippett: I think Patriarch Bartholomew has said that he feels more openness within an Islamic government than he did with the secular government.

Mr. Akyol: Exactly. Exactly. Because, while Turkey’s secularists did not like religion and religion included Christianity as well. So sometimes you see religious people standing together in the face of an authoritarian secularist regime, and that was the case in Turkey. There have been important Muslim religious leaders in Turkey who have defended the patriarchates or Turkish Jewish community against nationalists who demonize these groups, these minority groups. And I’m happy to see more and more of that. Of course, there are still steps to be taken. The Halki Seminary, the …

Ms. Tippett: The seminary still has not been opened.

Mr. Akyol: … important teaching institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it should be opened. Why it is not still opened, I don’t know. But the problems are coming from Turkey’s educational laws. No private education is allowed in Turkey, everything has to be under state tutelage, including Islamic education, and so on. So there are problems coming from there. But Erdogan should do this reform as soon as possible. And show to the world that “New Turkey,” which is more democratic and more Muslim than the past, is also more free. There are some reasons to say, Yes, that’s the case. There are some still problems which, you know, make that answer not perfect. But I hope, my hope is that the Erdogan government will keep on reforming and those reforms will include reforms that will further help the Christians of Turkey.


Read Ms. Tippet’s full interview

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