Home > Archives > 02 - 2004 > No crusades, we’re Turks
from issue no. 02 - 2004

The relations between the State and the Christian minorities

No crusades, we’re Turks

The current government of Ankara, in the hands by the moderate Islamic party AKP, has given signs of quick response to the problems of the Christian Churches

by Gianni Valente

Every morning almost five hundred students enter the large blue building of Evrim school, in the modern quarter of Sisli. The little ones in their small blue pullovers and coats, those of the middle school wearing their green uniform, and the high school students recognizable in their heavy burgundy jackets worn over gray pants and skirts. Before entering they sing the student oath in front of the bust of Ataturk in the center of the courtyard: We promise to respect the teachers, to follow our elders and help the younger, and other good proposals of exemplary Turkish citizens in training. Evrim means evolution. Thus the name of the school seems to be in tune with the scientific optimism that spills out from banners and posters, spread along the corridors and classrooms, along with the most successful slogans of the Father of the homeland. Science is the most important instrument in giving shape to your life, states the most insistent one. In short, a private Turkish school like all the others. If it were not that the owner and headmaster of the entire scholastic institute is Father Orazio, a Salesian from Venice.
A hundred years ago this was the private Catholic school run by the followers of don Bosco. With the secularization of the school system decreed by Attatrk, the institute continued to operate as an Italian school. But some years ago a new law decreed that Turkish students could attend foreign schools only from the upper middle school on. Without the elementary and lower middle school classes, the school was about to disappear. Thus don Orazio decided to make a leap.
For three years, while classes were temporarily suspended, he worked on the great metamorphosis. He transformed the school into a private share company, all made out in his name. He went around offices and ministries, dealing with company law with bored bureaucrats and collecting seals and certificates of approval. And in the end Evrim reopened as any other private Turkish school, totally integrated into the national educational system. Orazio too became Turkish. He took the name Namik. And he is adopting another Salesian with Turkish citizenship. When the moment comes to retire, he will pass on to him the company which owns the school by means of a simple property transfer like those between father and son.
Thus, with robust Salesian concreteness, Orazio skilfully dribbled his way through all the wearying cavils about legal niceties that complicate the functioning of institutions in Turkey. With his school totally impregnated by the serious secular credo that inspires the Turkish educational system, with no outward sign referring in any way to Christianity, it is a living image of the paradoxical pathways one finds oneself on when following Saint Pauls invitation to be all things to all men in order to testify to Jesus Christ. As he looks at the children entering class, he can tell the family faith of each one. Of those three one is Christian, one is Moslim and one is Jewish, he says, pointing out with satisfaction three who are walking with linked arms towards the door of the second elementary. He speaks with pride of his fine teachers, but the students dont even know what faith the others belong to He hints at a sotto voce testimony, one without missionary proclamations, that has no wish to be blatant. All based on the soft tones of everyday life. Which is also the real public space where people become honest citizens, as Don Bosco taught. And it can also happen that a new faith may touch hearts, one by one.
Turkey-Europe the never-ending story
But Orazios strategy in Turkey is a unique case. A solo flight in which the Salesian has managed to slip by the thorny problems that torment the leaders of the Christian communities in the modern Turkey born out of the Kemals revolution: the tangle of problems that weigh on the institutions and the organizations of the religious minorities in the country, whose rights are still formally defined in the articles inserted ad hoc into the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923 by Turkey successor to the Ottoman Empire. A controversial and undigested series of problems for the Turkish authorities which has now also finished at the center of the fitful negotiations for Turkeys admission to the European Union, after the directing bodies of the EU have hedged about continuing progress with a series of reforms of various types required from Turkey so as to adapt its own institutional, economic and social standards to the parameters achieved in Europe (see box). A list which also mentions the reaching of a European level of human and minority rights. Playing cleverly with the guide lines indicated by Europe the representatives of the principal Christian minorities in Turkey (Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian and Syrian), last September, for the first time in the history of modern Turkey, a jointly signed cahier de dolances to set out their expectations. The document, sent to the Commission for Human Rights of the Turkish National Assembly (and for information to the office of the Prime Minister and the ministries involved) sums up in seven points the reforms required to deal with the chronic problems of the minorities in Turkey. According to the representatives of the Christian communities it is a matter of recognizing the legal person of all the Patriarchates and Churches; assuring the legal conditions necessary for the teaching and training of ministers of religion; assuring the granting of Turkish nationality or residence permits to religious personnel coming from abroad; giving an ad hoc ministry powers to deal with the problems of the religious minorities; ensuring that public institutions and organizations cease to consider non-Moslims as a social group as a potential danger for the security of the country; granting to religious institutions the possibility of managing fixed assets, aiming to hand back to the communities which were the legal owners, real estate which for different reasons were was taken away from the Christian communities; authorizing the functioning of one church at least in all the cities where Christians live.
A hand shake between the Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan and Mesrop II Mutafyan,  Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul. The Armenian community, with eighty thousand faithful, is the most numerous Christian community in Turkey.

A NEW DIRECTION? A hand shake between the Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan and Mesrop II Mutafyan, Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul. The Armenian community, with eighty thousand faithful, is the most numerous Christian community in Turkey.

In the few lines of the document decades of difficult relations between the minorities and the modern Turkish state are condensed, and the knee-jerk reflexes that go back to the history of the Ottoman Empire. The current government in Ankara, in the hands of AKP, the moderate Islamic party, has given signs of quick response to the issue. In the so-called packets of harmonization, provisions passed from 2002 on to adjust Turkish law to that of Europe, some changes have already been inserted that could have repercussions on the life of the communities. A modification to the law on foundations introduced since 9 August 2002 grants to the foundations of communities the right to acquire landed property and dispose of it freely. While a modification of 15 July 2003 to the law on urban planning grants to the communities the right to construct places of worship and prayer according to the needs of the place and of the religion, where the earlier law mentioned only mosques. But the dispositions of law have not yet had concrete applications at the administrative level. And the whole intricate skein risks falling back into the tactical game of the diktat and of the diplomatic pressures which Ankara and Europe exploit and counter in the course of delicate negotiations, the outcome of which can in no way be taken for granted. It is a scenario complicated by the hostile wind blowing from Europe toward Turkey and often fomented by ecclesiastical leaders. On 4 December last the Archbishop of Athens Christodoulos, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, fired a broadside at the Turkish barbarians who want to enter Europe, and accused all those who support the entry of the Turkish Trojan horse into the Christian world of historically criminal incompetence. A blast that embarrassed the Greek government itself in. With an entirely different tone and arguments Cardinal Camillo Ruini, speaking to the Assembly of Italian bishops in May 2003, expressed his own personal concern, noting that Turkey, while having a secular Constitution, is in fact a firmly Islamic nation, with a very large population and a very positive demographic dynamic and that therefore the impact on Europe is an extremely delicate problem, to be assessed with great care. Alarms and reservations which do not seem to be shared by those in charge of the Christian communities in Turkey. The idea that Islamic Turkey might conquer Christian Europe seems like a joke to me. If people are frightened, its nothing but a symptom of the weakness of European Christianity, acknowledges Ruggero Franceschini, Vicar Apostolic of Iskenderun, who also has the reputation of a militant bishop always ready to go to law to defend ecclesiastical property threatened by expropriation. Mesrop II Mutafyan, Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, agrees with him: Instead of closing the doors to Turkey in the name of Christian roots, the European Churches should guard against the real agnosticism that dominates life in Europe.

Turkish secularism
In the great Sunni mosque in Antioch the mufti repeats the same concepts stuck in the groove. He goes on tirelessly saying in a hundred different ways that we must do good with the gifts that Allah has given us, presenting a good image of religion, so that when the people see us they will say: how good the Moslims are!. A world of good intentions where the only enemies are the bad Moslims and Turks who use violence.
Article 312 of the penal code has from the beginning prosecuted instigation to religious hatred. But in recent times checks on the sermons in the mosques have become even stricter. Since the attacks in November against two synagogues and a British bank building in Istanbul, the alarm at fundamentalist contagion has burdened the already complex relationship between institutions and religion in Turkey with tensions and pressures of planetary dimensions. An anomaly born of complicated historical processes, which one must take into account if one is to understand something of the problems of the Christian minorities.
From the formal point of view, the secularism of the State still constitutes the cardinal principle of the Turkish Republic which came out of a violent break with the old order, largely founded on the religion which was held to be chiefly responsible for the decadence of the Ottoman Empire (A. Bockel). The founding fathers of the country entrusted to that principle the onerous task of enforcing the achievement in Turkey of the process that in the West took from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Again in the preamble to the latest Constitution, in force since 1982, it is established that religious sentiments, eminently respectable in themselves, must not in any case interfere with the affairs of State or with politics. And article 24, paragraph 4, forbids whatsoever attempt to abuse religion in order to found, even if only partially, a social, economic, political or juridical order on religious rules. The secular rigor which inspires the whole structure of the State is justified by historians as a counterweight to the theocratic impetus inherent in Islam and in its reluctance to distinguish between the religious sphere and that of political organization and civil co-existence. This rigor has always had the powerful army and the judiciary power as watchdogs, as shown by the various sentences on the ban on wearing the veil in public places, and those which over the last decades have led to the dissolving of at least four parties accused of Islamic confessionalism. The institution of Diyanet, the Direction of Religious affairs, which was to guarantee institutional secularism and to achieve solidarity and national union, was in its time justified by the need for political control over the religious sphere. But as time has gone on political and social experience has modified the rigid ideological schemes. In the last decades, Emre ktem, the young and brilliant professor of international law at Galatasaray Universitesi, explains to 30Days, a curious osmosis has occurred. The politician has penetrated religion in order to control it better, but the religious has profited from this to introduce himself into the apparatus of state. The emblem of this heterogenesis of purpose are the Tariquat, the Islamic confraternities forbidden by law but to which some of the principal political leaders of the past years, from Ozal to Erbakan, notoriously belong. But Diyanet itself, created as an instrument of control, has changed over time into an organ of propagation of Sunni Islam, which has in fact become the religious denomination of the state, to the detriment especially of Islamic minority groups, such as the different millions of Alawiti. In 2000 Diyanet could count on ninety thousand staff and a state budget of 471.4 million euro. Thus, over the last decades, ktem acknowledges, Anatolia has undergone a wave of Orthodox Islamization which perhaps it didnt experience in the Ottoman period, when the state was little present in the countryside. These contradictions have marked the whole relationship between institutional secularism and the political emergence of the religious factor in recent decades. After the coup in 1980, ktem again explains, the military government used the religious question to block the Marxist movements, in line with the American policy of the green zone in Asia. President-General Evren crammed his speeches in defense of the state with Koranic verses. The electoral politics have increasingly rewarded those who staked on religion. The victory of the AKP in the elections of 2002 should be read in this historical context. But Erdogans Party could itself now, according to ktem, attempt a new synthesis: Deepening its inspiration as a moderate Islamic Party, the AKP could overcome the patterns of logic of the past in favor of the birth of a new equilibrium between political stability, the secularism of the State and freedom of religion, according to European standards.
In this mobile situation, the fact that the rights of religious minorities are still safeguarded on the basis of the articles imposed by the Treaty of Lausanne is a residue of traditionalist immobility. Which implicitly confines the non- Moslim religious communities of the country in the status of foreign institutions guaranteed on the basis of international agreements.

Learning from Roncalli
Don Giorges Marovitch, who is presently Chancellor at the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul, was little more than a child when Angelo Roncalli came to Istanbul as nuncio. He still lives in the Casa Papa Giovanni, the former nunciature, restored as a small museum, where it often happened that he served the masses which the placid nuncio from Bergamo celebrated every day in the chapel. While he shows guests the rooms and corridors where the future good Pope passed the difficult years of the Second World War, he likes to recount the daily episodes which struck his teenage imagination. But he also remembers when members of the communities of foreign Catholics in Istanbul rebelled against the nuncio because Roncalli had tried to celebrate the mass in Turkish. Some Levantines even wrote to Rome. They accused the nuncio of altering the Catholic religion. The historical shadow of the guaranteed foreign citizenship is still projected onto present affairs of Christian minorities in Turkey. A fact which should be taken into account by those who cultivate a legitimate desire to profit from the Turkish negotiations with Europe to gain space and juridical legitimacy.

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