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from issue no. 01 - 2004

TURKEY. Bells and minarets

Chronicles from Antioch

The daily adventure of an Italian friar and a small community of Catholics and Orthodox in the city where Peter and Paul, Barnabas and Luke lived, and where “the disciples were called Christians for the first time”.

by Gianni Valente

The archeological remains of the ancient port of Seleukia (today Samandag),  thirty kilometers from Antioch, from where Paul set out on his apostolic journeys

The archeological remains of the ancient port of Seleukia (today Samandag), thirty kilometers from Antioch, from where Paul set out on his apostolic journeys

The miniscule Catholic bell which tolls immediately underneath the high tower of the muezzin of the Sarimyie mosque, among the shabby alleyways of the old town, just at the side of Kurtulus Caddesi, can take the western traveler by surprise, stunned as he is by the gusts of anti Islamic phobia that for years have swept the north of the world. But there are other churches and chapels in the shadow of minarets, spread about here in Turkey, in the Holy Land and in many countries with Muslim majorities. What makes Antakya on the Orontes, a Turkish distortion of the ancient name of Antioch, forever unique, however, happened almost two thousand years ago and is written in the Acts of the Apostles. Where it is recounted that here the disciples of Christ, who fýrmerly «did not preach the word to any except the Jews», for the first time «arriving in Antioch began to speak also to the Greeks, preaching the good news of the Lord Jesus». News which raised questions in the apostolic community in Jerusalem, so much so that Barnabas was sent to take a look at the unknown church flowering among the pagans. «When he arrived, he saw the grace of the Lord and rejoiced … In Antioch the disciples were called Christians for the first time»
Now no less than five patriarchs (three Catholics of the Eastern rite, one Orthodox and a Syrian-Jacobite) bear the title of the city where Luke, the Greek doctor evangelist, was born, where Paul and Barnabas stayed for a long time and where Saint Peter was bishop before coming to Rome to be martyred on the Vatican hill. But they all live elsewhere. In his own small scale, however, the only real “successor of Peter” here is Father Domenico, the lanky Capuchin friar from Modena, who shares this field record unjealously with the Abuna Boulos from the neighboring Orthodox parish. He arrived at the end of the ’eighties in the once cosmopolitan city which the French in 1939 ceded to the Turks along with all of the Syrian region of Hatay, to guarantee their neutrality in the approaching world conflict. Bit by bit he fixed up two tumbledown old houses in the ancient Jewish quarter, where presumably the dwellings of the first Christians here were concentrated, and where now only the very poor live, because those who are able flee to the ugly condominium dwellings on the other side of the Orontes. Over the main door he attached a marble slab with the inscription Turik Katolik Kilisei, which means Turkish Catholic Church, to let everyone know that it’s not something foreign. And from that moment a dense network of unexpected friendships, fortuitous meetings, small dramatic turns of daily events formed round the house-church of Father Domenico, which he shares with his collaborators: Germana, a gangly nun from Rome and Mariagrazia, a religious who came from Milan.
One is immediately grateful to the ingenious Muslim architect, Alawite, who restructured the house in the eastern and arabesque style of the ancient patrician residences of Antioch, porticos and columns, decorated windows and stone wells, battlemented terraces. Thus the house has become one of the local attractions. The lady mayor takes her distinguished guests there, when she wants to make a good impression. Ministers and prefects visiting the city pass by here, uniformed generals with their wives, groups of western pilgrims, veiled girl-students from Konya, the fortress of the fundamentalist in Turkey. And many inspired solitary travelers who follow in the footsteps of Paul or along the path to Jerusalem. The Muslim family clans and also the Jewish ones, after the circumcision rites, ask permission to organize informal parties in the courtyard set in the middle of the dwelling, beneath scented oranges and grapefruits.

Antioch today seen from Mount Silpius

Antioch today seen from Mount Silpius

Chronicles of Antioch
At the time of Peter and Paul, of Barnabas and Luke, Antioch was «the city of the gladiatorial games, of dance, of courts and of bacchanals… An unheard of medley of charlatans, criers at the fair, traders, jesters, enchanters, wizards, swindler priests, ballerinas, heroes of the arena and the stage” (Renan). The narrow, extraordinary, Christian adventure of Father Domenico and his friends unravels within the enigmatic Turkey of today, Western and Asiatic at the same time, lay and Muslim, democratic even though bridled by the military and police forces.
There are those who complain about the difficulties and the limits which condition the Catholic presence on Turkish soil, squeezed between Islamic social pressure and the secular imprint of the legislation which does not acknowledge a definite legal status to the Catholic church, so that Catholic organizations and property get by in a legally uncertain existence, harassed by the invasive bureaucracy. Domenico does not torment himself about it too much. «In Turkey», he says, «the Church does not legally exist: it is and that’s enough!» He does not usually rant on with alarmist statements about the «discriminated» situation of the local Christian minorities: «We are watched, and so? If the laws are respected, it’s easier to work and solve the problems». Domenico and his collaborators annotate life and everyday problems in short accounts in the Antioch Chronicle, a sort of collective diary published each year and sent to the many friends in every part of the world. In the few pages of the chronicle just published, that of 2003, the queues at the public offices in order to get permits and have documents stamped are described, as well as the shrewd candor with which Domenico takes advantage of every occasion to cultivate good relations with the civil authorities, beginning with the mayoress, «who hopes to be re-elected next year» and has already illustrated her first electoral flyer with the photo of her audience with the Pope, which the Capuchin from Mantua organized for her a couple of years ago. But there is a little of the whole of ordinary life in this strip of Turkey that runs through the slight notes, with its lights and shades, the obstacles small and large, the casual meetings, the efforts of all. Such as the episode, one among a thousand others, recorded on 15 September last: «It is known to all that Turkey is undergoing a long and painful economic crisis,» Domenico writes on that date, “everybody suffers it daily. What happened to me today seems like a joke, but unfortunately it’s true. In the early afternoon a distinguished lady accompanied by two men, one of whom was rather suspicious, arrived. She said she had come from Ankara. She had need of a particular blessing and asked me not to disappoint her. First she told me she worked in a very crowded place, very difficult …., then she told me it was a brothel. For some time there had been a significant falling off in clients and she didn’t know the reason for it, so she asked me to give her a blessing and to pray over her head. The Lord also used great mercy with similar women, so I also pray for her… Thus the economic crisis has also affected this sector!”
In these ordinary ongoings, without seeking to catch the eye, without missionary proclamations or without strident proselytism, everything can turn out useful for making more of what is alive. Like the money which the Bishop of Padua made available «to buy the apartment adjoining our garden. In three days the transfer of ownership was done. We hope to fix up the property as soon as possible in order to be able to accommodate three or four poor Christian families there. We will call it the “House of Saint Luke”. Thus also the diocese of Padua, which preserves the remains of the evangelist, can say that it has returned to this city».
In the same quarter where the domus ecclesiae were concentrated, the private houses of the well-off such as Luke where the first Christians met, in the old city dominated by the jumble of bizarre oriental cults, the few Christians of today find themselves praying and reading the Gospel in their modest dwellings, surrounded by the rhythms and the social and religious rituals of the Islamic community. Such as the Kurban Bayram, or the feast of sacrifice, the Old Testament rite in which the divine intervention to stay the hand of Abraham is remembered. «For hygienic reasons and reasons of “public morality”», it says in the report of 11 February, «the City Council has established suitable places away from children for the sacrifices: in truth, despite the threat of steep fines, few respect this regulation. Our neighbors cut the throat of a fine big goat right in front of the entrance to our garden. So, we too, willingly or unwillingly, participate in this rite … with much spilling of blood everywhere”.
The bell of the Antioch parish church of Saints Peter and Paul, with the minaret of the mosque in the background

The bell of the Antioch parish church of Saints Peter and Paul, with the minaret of the mosque in the background

At mass with the Orthodox
Friar Basilio from Novara, the first Capuchin to arrive in these parts in the mid nineteenth century was killed only a year later. Hired Muslim killers cut his throat at the instigation of some Eastern Christian brother who had become jealous. As for Domenico it went entirely differently. Among the regular congregation of about eighty at the mass he celebrates on Saturday evening, counting the young and the adults, there are Chaldeans, Armenians, Syrians, catechumens preparing for baptism (and who leave the celebration before the Eucharistic liturgy begins). But they are mainly Orthodox, linked to the patriarchate of Antioch, the bishop of which lives in Syria. Four years ago, when Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch left his residence in Damascus to visit the city whose title he bears, Domenico told him about the young Orthodox who were taking communion from the hands of a Catholic priest. «The Lord will reward you for this work», was the Patriarch’s only comment. Here Christians are just a handful and there is little reason to fight about presumed or real proselytism. But it is surprising that one of the catechists most involved in the neo-catechumen training which inspired the parish should be the son of Boulos, the Orthodox pope. And should Catholics go to visit the latter, he never misses a chance to intone the hymn Pange lingua (by Saint Thomas Aquinas) in his church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, and never fails to thank the Pope, «because they have told me that in his last encylical he again said that the Orthodox may take the Eucharist at Catholic mass». Which is a very compressed synthesis of the 62 paragraphs of the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucaristia. But it works well, to confirm the real communion which the Christians of Antioch, Catholic and Orthodox, live in actual fact. Since 1988, through a permission conceded ad experimentum by the Holy See, the Catholics of Antioch celebrate Easter on the day set by the Orthodox calendar. So at least here the disagreement on the date of the Easter celebrations, which throughout the Middle East comes up as an easy argument to throw in the face of Christians about their differences, has disappeared. Throughout the year Domenico and Boulos collaborate as the parish priests of two adjoining churches. They participate together at vigils and liturgies. They go together to deal with prefects and government offices. They administer works of charity together, such as the 17 apartments for the poor and aged being built through the help of the Italian Caritas organization. And on 29 June, the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, they all climb up Mount Silpius, to the Grotto of Peter, now reduced to a branch of the local museum, which the sectarian local tour guides pass off as the first church in the world dedicated to the Prince of Apostles. There, among Turkish flags and mega-posters of Ataturk, after the band has played the national anthem, passages from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are read. In the presence of the Nuncio, Catholic and Orthodox bishops, and the civil authorities, including the Rabbi and the Mufti, who in 2000 exploited the situation and right in the middle of the service delivered his unasked-for apologia of the Koran and the prophet.

I challenged Peter
before them all

On that occasion Domenico got angry, but it soon passed. However, his irritation at the state of decay of the Grotto of Peter, made even more depressing by the recent crude restorations, is still with him. Since 1967, by the wish of Pope Paul VI, a plenary indulgence can be gained by pilgrimage to the damp and delapidated holy grotto, the only historical vestige of ancient Christian Antioch, the Queen of the East which competed with Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople at the time of the Pentarchy. And where in the first centuries saintly theologians defended faith in the entire humanity of Christ against the occult poison of the Gnostic heresies. The rock church still has the shape given it by the crusaders who conquered Antioch in 1098. But the place where the first Christians had gathered in periods of persecution had already been transformed into a chapel by the Byzantines. At a time when the spring which still flows there was used as a baptismal font - and was useful as a simple reserve of water in difficult times - and the cavernous tunnels which still lead into the belly of the mountain became providential ways of escape. The statue of Peter and the marble throne behind the altar are instead a legacy of the French at the time of their protectorate. Bogus and decaying references to Antioch as the Sedes Petri, where Peter exercised for some years his mandate as head of the Church. Not even Domenico and his friends believe that the Apostle ever lived in the inhospitable cavern which bears his name. But that he lived in Antioch is beyond debate. Paul attests it in his Epistle to the Galatians recounting the unpleasant episode of the barely avoided row («But when Cephas came to Antioch I challenged him to his face, because he was clearly wrong») which is enough in itself to indicate the incomparable distance between the office entrusted to Peter (and to his successors) and all the religious powers born of human history.
A baker in the bazaar of the city. The writing above the oven says : Allah great and merciful

A baker in the bazaar of the city. The writing above the oven says : Allah great and merciful

It happened that Peter, at first on friendly terms with the pagans of the city who had become Christians, had begun to «draw back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party», some Christians of Jewish origin come from Jerusalem in whose judgment salvation was not possible for those who did not observe the Mosaic law. «And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity». It was for this reason that Paul attacked Peter, so that he would not become an accomplice of «false brethren who had slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage». Because «by the works of the law shall no one be justified». And «if justice comes through the law, then Jesus died in vain». When the question was discussed in Jerusalem by the apostles and the ancients gathered in the first Council of the Church, the apostolic letter which resulted from it was sent first of all to the community in Antioch: «We have decided, we and the Holy Spirit, not to impose any further obligation on you apart from these necessary things: to abstain from meat offered to idols, from blood, strangled animals and immodesty… Be well».
Even today in Antioch it can happen that one becomes Christian savoring some of the freedom for which Paul quarrelled with Peter. An easy gain. Without religious, ethnic, and cultural preconditions. As Betul, now called Benedetta, recounts. Because she considers it «special good luck» to have been born in the Islamic city where Luke and Paul, Barnabas and Peter, Ignatius and Chrysotomom lived, «seeing that perhaps without them I, too, would not have become a Christian». It’s even greater good luck to have been baptized at forty years old, and to take part in a history in which «to ask everything of the Lord there is no further need of ablutions and sacrifices».

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