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The Tablet reports on ‘Christians find a champion’

The Tablet has reported on the treatment of religious minorities living in Turkey, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate and recent decisions issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Tablet is a weekly Catholic journal which has been reporting on events of significance for nearly 170 years, unique in its international coverage of religion, current affairs, politics, social issues and the arts.


Christians find a champion

By Sarah Mac Donald

A court victory for the Ecumenical Patriarchate confirming its ownership of an orphanage has raised the hopes of embattled church communities in Turkey. Christians have been in legal limbo with few rights since the foundation of the modern republic in the 1920s.

If the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, realises his ambitions for the refurbishment of a Greek Orthodox orphanage building on Buyukada Island, Istanbul, it could mark a turning point in relations between the Turkish state and religious minorities. The Ecumenical Patriarch told the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he would like to use part of the vast wooden building as a centre for interfaith dialogue.

Such dialogue is sorely needed in a country that is dangerously close to losing the last vestiges of a living Christian community — less than one percent of Turkey’s population of 73 million is Christian. Christians have been driven out by petty discrimination — they cannot own places of worship or train clergy. These last two restrictions stem from the poorly crafted Treaty of Lausanne which in 1923 only recognised Sunni Muslims and three “non-Muslim” groupings — the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Jews. This left all other Christians in a legal limbo with few rights.

Increasingly, Christians have looked to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg for recognition of their fundamental rights. The orphanage has been their most recent success. The vast wooden building was expropriated by the state Vakiflar agency in 1995 on the grounds that it was unused and had fallen into disrepair. The Patriarchate had been willing to repair the property but had been refused permission to do so by the authorities while there was a challenge to its legal ownership.

The case, which began in 1997, finally came to a conclusion on 15 June when the ECHR ruled that the Turkish state must return the orphanage to the Greek Patriarchate and pay 26,000 Euros in damages. The ruling is significant not only for the directive ordering the return of the building to its owners — the Patriarchate — but also for the fact that the ECHR recognised the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a legal entity in its own right; something the Turkish state has never done.

For decades, human-rights groups monitoring religious freedom have rebuked the Turkish state for its discrimination against religious minorities — Christians such as Armenian Orthodox, Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox, but also Alevi and Shi’a Muslims, as well as its ethnic minorities such as the Kurds. Although the Turkish constitution provides for freedom of belief; the reality is very different.

The 2010 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) points out that “the Turkish Government’s attempt to control religion and its effort to exclude religion from the public sphere based on its interpretation of secularism result in serious religious freedom violations for many of the country’s citizens, including members of majority and, especially; minority religious communities.

Since 2002 the government of the Islamist leaning AKP has made a series of radical reforms and legal adjustments in an effort to bring Turkey into line with EU democratic norms and enhance the country’s accession chances. Many of these changes are resented by those who cleave to the ideology that has held sway since the foundation of Turkey as a modern secular republic in 1923 under Kemal Ataturk. Traditionally the military has upheld its core tenets of conservative nationalism and strict secularism. For them the AKP is anathema to Turkey’s much vaunted separation of Church and State. Some believe these forces lie behind a spate of attacks on Christians, most recently the stabbing to death of Turkey’s most senior cleric, Bishop Luigi Padovese of Anatolia. His driver, Murat Altun, launched a frenzied knife attack on the bishop inside the Episcopal residence, and neighbours heard him shouting “Allah Akbar! I have killed the great Satan!”

Official reports claimed that the driver, 26-year-old Altun, had recently received treatment for psychiatric problems. But Archbishop Ruggero Franceshini of Izmir, who was recently named Padovese’s successor, is in no doubt that the cleric was murdered. The archbishop said he could personally vouch for the accused’s sanity, throwing cold water on Altun’s insanity plea.

He also claimed that Altun was not a religious man, leaving a question mark over why he had incorporated Muslim symbolism in the execution of Bishop Padovese. Although it has been suggested that Altun was a pawn for Kemalists desperate to rid the country of the AKP’s Islamic revivalism, it is also possible that hardline Islamists were responsible. The truth is that both factions have an interest in destabilising relations between Christians and Muslims.

But the ECHR’s decision on the orphanage has given Christians some hope. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in particular believes that it may pave the way for the lifting of the restriction on clerical formation. The Patriarchate has for decades sought permission to re-open the historic Halki seminary on the island of Heybeliada. It was closed in 1971 when the state nationalised all private institutions of higher learning. With no means of training new clergy and with the law stipulating that any future leader of the Greek Orthodox Church must he a Turkish citizen, the very existence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is threatened.

As it stands, official Turkey still refuses to recognise the office or authority of Bartholomew I in his role as leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. To official secular Turkey, Bartholomew I is simply the leader of the country’s tiny 2,500-strong local Greek Orthodox community which has no national or international status.

It is not just the Greek Orthodox who cannot legally train new clergy. The Syriac Orthodox community of the Tur Abdin (“the Mountain of the Servants of God”) in eastern Anatolia has witnessed a rapid decline in the number of its monks since the 1970s. In monasteries such as Mor Gabriel, dating from AD 397, and the Deyr ul-Zafaran, or Saffron Monastery, which was founded in AD 493, the liturgy which still uses the Aramaic of Jesus’ time may soon be lost it this ancient Church cannot train new clergy to continue their ancient rites. Compounding this, the monastery of Mor Gabriel, which lies close to the city of Mardin, is locked in a legal battle with the state which made an attempt to expropriate some of its lands. In 2008, the local authorities sought to redraw land boundaries around the monastery as part of a national registry. The new boundaries would have given large sections of the monastery’s land to local villagers and designated other sections for forestry.

Locals have used this poorly conducted registry, which in some instances has relied on oral testimonies rather than proper documentation, to lay claim to property belonging to the lay Syriac community who fled during the clashes between Kurdish separatists and the state military in the 1980s and 1990s.

Local villagers have also accused the Syriac Orthodox monks of ‘anti-Turkish activities such as proselytising local children — something of which the state takes a dim view. Such trumped-up claims make a marginalized community even more isolated. Implausible claims abound.

One bizarre assertion by a local Muslim leader was that there had been a mosque under Mor Gabriel which the monks had built over — some feat in view of the fact that the monastery was founded in AD 397, quite some time before the Prophet Muhammad ever walked this earth.

The exodus of Syriacs has depleted the population from 130,000 in the 1960s down to 3,000 in 2010. Their plight is a microcosm of the wider exodus of Christians from Turkey. Expropriation of Christian properties will ensure that their owners, who from part of the Turkish Christian diaspora of Armenians, Syriacs and Greeks, will never he able to return.

As the AKP continues to try to reconcile the polarities of Turkish life and foster a synthesis between faith and modernity, in the opinion of some, fundamental reform of the Turkish Constitution and the Treaty of Lausanne will be essential for genuine progress and a truly pluralist society, where all Turkish citizens are valued equally. Otherwise as the USCIRF report notes, there will continue to be “a critical decline of these communities in their historic lands”. A shocking prospect for the land which gave Christians their very name (Acts 11:26).


Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance journalist. She is currently researching Turkey’s Christian religious minorities for an MA in international relations.

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