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from issue no. 06 - 2011

A model for the new Middle East

Over the last decade the minorities in Turkey, including the Christians, have found new spaces in which to exercise their freedom.

And the ruling party, the AKP, has shown that Islam and democracy are not irreconcilable. An example for the Arab Spring

by Lorenzo Biondi

The Ortaköy mosque and the bridge on the Bosphorus in Istanbul [© Getty Images]

The Ortaköy mosque and the bridge on the Bosphorus in Istanbul [© Getty Images]


Asmall crowd is waiting in front of the rock wall. It is 29 June, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. We are just beyond the outskirts of Antioch: nestled in the mountains there is a rock face, then a cave. According to tradition, the early Christians came here to pray in secret because of persecution. Among them, the Apostles Paul, Barnabas and Peter, who first brought here the message of Jesus. The “grotto of St Peter” has been turned into a museum, complete with admission fee. Two officials are keeping back a hundred faithful who want to go in and pray to the saint.

The wait, however, doesn’t last long. The phone rings, from offices of the governor of the province comes the order to allow free entry. The bishop arrives, Archbishop Ruggero Franceschini. The two guardians step aside, the cave fills with pilgrims. The Mass can begin.

It is a common scene in many parts of Turkey. In recent years, the state authorities have begun looking after various abandoned places of worship. They have rescued them from deterioration and, although during the year one has to buy a ticket to visit them, on special occasions these ‘holy places’ are returned to the devotion of the faithful. This is a new approach, a small one maybe, but it is a sign of change. For decades in the Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk the existence of religious minorities was denied. Today, despite resistance and contradictions, a new and promising period has opened for the small Christian community in the land of Turkey.


Signs of change

The legacy of the past can be felt. In the capital Ankara, dominated by the ministries, it is impossible to find a building with a cross on top. The churches are there, but they are lodged inside the embassies, on extraterritorial land and hidden from view. One also sees few mosques in fact, sandwiched maybe between ancient and modern buildings. If the freedom of Christians in Turkey has limits, it is not simply because of opposition between religions.

Father Dositheos, an Orthodox priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul, explains: “Christians, Jews and Muslims have always lived together in this land. They know what peaceful coexistence means. In the early decades of the Turkish Republic (founded in 1923), nationalism was the dominant policy of the country, but it wore the mask of Islam. In reality, the idea of the Turkish nation was hidden behind that word. At that time, the minorities lost their rights in the face of Kemalist statism. It’s only in the last ten years that talk has begun of religious freedom: an absolute novelty”.

The process is slow, one step at a time. We see it in Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul, where we arrived on 26 June, the Sunday before the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The local community has been given permission to celebrate Mass in the church dedicated to the Apostle of the Gentiles. Built by the Crusaders in the twelfth century, under the Republic the building was converted into a warehouse. Only in the last few years, thanks to the insistence of the Capuchin friars and the backing of the government, the monument was cleaned up and reopened. Again in this case as a museum. Only a few hours to go before the service: the three nuns, “Daughters of the Church”, who live in the city have just been given permission to enter and set up the church. The time for preparation is short, everything is done in a bit of a hurry. And there’s even less time at the end of Mass to get rid of chairs and vestments: the faithful quickly make way for the ticket-paying tourists.

In the “secular” Turkish Republic it is the state that ensures that religious activity does not go beyond the bounds fixed by the Constitution and the law. Churches have no legal recognition, but for some years now the situation of religious minorities has significantly improved. The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has paid heed to their demands. The promises have not always been kept, but the new Turkish leadership has shown a hitherto unknown willingness to talk. And in some cases discussion has led to very concrete results.

The President of the Syro-Catholic Foundation of Istanbul, Zeki Basatemir, tells of when he went to protest because an old Syrian church in Alessandretta – Iskenderun for the Turks – had been used as a porn cinema for years. To restore the building to its old function was no longer possible, but after expropriating it the government knocked it down, and in 2010 built a new church at its own expense. The facade, faithful to the traditional style of these regions, speaks of a new sensitivity to the problems of Christians.

Co-operation often arises in relationships between individuals, but it is now reaching the level of institutions. In September this year, for example, the municipality of Istanbul, along with the Holy See, is publishing a book on the Christian presence in the city in the 17th century. For the first time the symbol of a Turkish institution will be printed along with that of the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, in the very years in which relations between Ankara and Christians seem to be changing, the small Church of Turkey was hit by tragedies such as the murder of Father Andrea Santoro and Monsignor Luigi Padovese. It will take some time to shed light on the murders, but meanwhile the government decided to demonstrate its closeness to the friends of the victims. Monsignor Franceschini, Archbishop of Smyrna and administrator pro tempore of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia, tells us of how the Justice Minister, Sadullah Ergin, rushed to Iskenderun for the funeral of the murdered bishop. “He asked me whether we wanted anything from them”, recalls Monsignor Franceschini. “I told him we just wanted to know the truth, nothing more”. A little over a year later the trial of the bishop’s murderer and possible instigators is about to begin. Many people tell us of the authorities’ concern to let justice take its course rapidly. Whereas, in other times, one would have expected indifference if not outright hostility.


The imposing mausoleum of Atatürk in Ankara <BR>[© Lorenzo Biondi]

The imposing mausoleum of Atatürk in Ankara
[© Lorenzo Biondi]

The false myth of Islamization

“The Christian minority in Turkey nurtures the hope that during the third mandate of the ruling party the unsettled issues necessary for the rights of the minority, may finally arrive at the desired outcome”. The speaker is Monsignor Antonio Lucibello, Apostolic Nuncio to the Republic of Turkey. “There are already eloquent signs pointing in that direction”.

The result of the 12 June elections will be remembered as a watershed in Turkish history. The AK Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 50 percent of the votes, an unprecedented result. A visit to the outskirts of Istanbul helps to understand one of the reasons for the triumph. The financial districts shimmer with newly built skyscrapers. The new working-class neighborhoods are crowded with apartment buildings, amid a sea of cranes and building sites. The economy is flourishing, the middle class is expanding and increasing its affluence.

The economy, however, is insufficient to explain the success of the party. “The AKP has become the voice of the Muslim people forgotten by the modernization process in Turkey”, Rober Koptas, the young editor of the Istanbul Armenian-language weekly, Agos tells us. For decades “secular” Turkey has looked to religion as a ballast. Modernity – it was said – corresponds to secularization. A message that the Muslim Turks have often struggled to accept. “Today, that part of society has in its turn entered a modernization process”, Koptas continues. “The AKP wants to prove that Muslims also can be real Democrats”.

It’s not the first time that an Islam-inspired party has come to power. It happened most recently in 1996 when Necmettin Erbakan became leader of the government. Many in his Welfare Party supported the introduction of Islamic law, the sharia, and the premier himself had close contacts with some “Sufi” (that is, Muslim mystic) brotherhoods known to support the Islamization of the State. Less than a year after that government came to power, the army intervened forcefully in the political game. In June 1997, Erbakan was forced to resign. The Constitutional Court then outlawed his party. It was then that a group of politicians of the “new generation”, including Erdogan and Abdullah Gül, sensed the need of a break with the past.


Like the European Christian Democrats

The inspiration remains Islam, but with a shift of direction. For example there is the growing influence of associations for dialogue inspired by the philosopher Fethullah Gülen. Cemal Usak – vice president of the Foundation of journalists and writers, created by Gülen – says: “Until the late ‘nineties the majority of Muslim politicians thought that their duty was to establish an Islamic State. Around 2000 they began to understand that the form of State cannot be imposed, but depends on the consent of the voters. Erdogan was able to win only when he realized that what was needed was a version of political Islam adapted to the needs of Turkey”.

Alper Dede, a political scientist at the Zirve University of Gaziantep, reconstructs for us the first years of Erdogan’s party. The dynamics are reminiscent of the origin of European Christian Democracies: “When the AKP was created in 2001 figures from different backgrounds came together. The leaders of the party feel close to today’s Christian Democrats. They are mostly politicians from the center-right, but  not only. Many come from the Islamist tradition of Erbakan, others are decidedly more moderate. A few come from conservative parties of a secular mold”.

Unlike his predecessors, Erdogan is looking for a synthesis of religious and secular Turkey. The photo of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk hangs in branches of the AKP. Often, however, they choose the picture of him deep in prayer with his companions, the palms turned upwards. To symbolize that the two Turkeys are far from incompatible.

“Westerners who look at the AKP”, says Rober Koptas, “see Muslims and get scared. I, as an Armenian, am not afraid of the AKP. It’s ridiculous to claim that the AKP wants to introduce sharia law. They are simply Muslims, practicing Muslims, like most of the population of this country. That part of the country wants to be present in parliament, universities, and it’s very ‘healthy’ that they want it”. The idea of the Islamization of society, when you look at the numbers, doesn’t hold. In a study backed by the TESEV think-tank – an institution funded largely by the Open Society Institute of George Soros – showed that since 1999 the number of women wearing the veil has fallen. Not the opposite, as the European press often reports. At the same time a majority of Turks think that the general attitude of society towards religion has changed and has changed for the better.

The conflict between the two halves of Turkey – secular and religious – has certainly not worn itself out. The tension began to rise again in 2007, when Abdullah Gül was elected President of the Republic. For a while it seemed that a part of the army was ready to intervene heavily on the political scene. It was the year of the murders of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist editor of Agos at the time, and Father Andrea Santoro. At other times the tension between secularists and Islamists would have led the military to intervene to restore order. But the coup didn’t happen. It was a sign that the climate was changing – in the country as well as outside it.


Faithful in prayer in the great mosque of Suleiman in Istanbul [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Faithful in prayer in the great mosque of Suleiman in Istanbul [© Lorenzo Biondi]

The ‘Turkish model’

In 2002 it was difficult to imagine that the AKP could bring about such a significant shift in Turkish politics. In surprising elections, none of the government parties was able to get over the electoral threshold of 10% and enter parliament. In fact only Erdogan’s party (AKP) and the Kemalist People’s Republican Party (CHP) did so. The moderate Muslims, with 35% of the vote, found themselves controlling two-thirds of Parliament.

“The AKP was a new party”, Professor Dede says again, “with experience only in local government”. Erdogan, its leader, hadn’t even been able to stand: four years previously a court had banned him from politics “for life” on the charge of “inciting religious hatred”. At a rally he quoted a Turkish poem from the beginning of the 20th century: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers”. He was elected only in 2003, after Parliament changed the law.

In these conditions not many people were betting on the duration of the AKP experiment. “In the early years of this government”, Dede told us, “I spoke with many members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who were skeptical about what was happening in Turkey. The turning point in terms of the credibility of the party came with the start of the Ergenekon trial”, that is once again in 2007, when it emerged that some army officers were planning a coup and ended up in the dock for it. It was then that “the AKP showed that it had the upper hand over the old secularist bureaucracy”. Today many young politicians from the Brotherhood come to Turkey to learn from the AKP. The “Turkish model” is discussed almost daily in Turkish and Middle Eastern newspapers.

Of course, political models are difficult to export. Cemal Usak recalls so from the story of his own country: “In the ’seventies there were groups of Turkish intellectuals who sought to import versions of “Arab” Islam. The only result was to produce radicalism”. The same can apply inversely: “Democracy and human rights are universal values valid in every country, but each country has to adapt those values to its own context”.

Rober Koptas also warns us about simplifications: “When the Turkish model is mentioned, one has to understand what is meant. The model is democracy, not Turkey itself. If the model be Turkey as it has been to date – a democracy ‘protected’ by the army’s weapons – then, no thanks. But what is now happening in the country is proving something to those who said: ‘Islam and democracy are incompatible’”.

Nowadays the Middle East looks to Turkey with interest. This is largely the merit of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, reappointed to his post after the elections. The policy of “zero problems with neighbors” has created a climate of collaboration around the country. Not only in politics: Turkish exports to neighboring countries are increasing at a frenzied pace. The influx of tourists is in constant growth. Ankara exports culture as well as goods.

This soft power has not gone unnoticed in Europe. And among more discerning Europeans there are many who do not want to miss the historic opportunity of bringing East and West closer. After the June vote Erdogan aimed to show that he is still interested in dialogue with the European Union by establishing a separate Ministry under the guidance of Egemen Bagis. But the agreement is at a standstill. Its most delicate clauses have been blocked. Instead of pushing on important issues – such as the protection of minority rights – Brussels has retreated into a refusal that from the shores of the Bosphorus seems ideological.


The ruins of the ancient Basilica of Our Lady of Ephesus, the first church in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Inside it, in 431, the Council which proclaimed Mary “Mother of God” was held [© Lorenzo Biondi]

The ruins of the ancient Basilica of Our Lady of Ephesus, the first church in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Inside it, in 431, the Council which proclaimed Mary “Mother of God” was held [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Reforms and compromises

Because in terms of the protection of religious minorities there is still much to work with. The Constitution currently in force states that religious freedom can be exercised only up to the point when it does not violate the principle of State secularism. Turkish law does not recognize the existence of the Christian Churches. Emre Öktem, Professor of International Law at the Galatasaray University in Istanbul, helps us with an example: “The Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul has no legal status. Technically, the patriarch himself is a mere employee working for the foundation that administers the Church of St George”. “Foundations” are the only religious institutions allowed by law. But until recently their existence was subject to tight restrictions. “A law of 1936 forbade the purchase of property or the right of inheritance to religious foundations”, the professor continues. If a faithful donated property to the Church, the donation was null and void.

“In 2002”, continues Öktem, “an amendment to the law on foundations was included in the harmonization packages created in the context of rapprochement between Turkey and the European Union. This was the first law allowing the purchase of property by the foundations. Then in 2008 came a new law enabling the return of property expropriated by the State in the past”.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s handshakes with the country’s religious leaders have not been merely symbolic gestures. Father Dositheos at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, describes the meeting between the Prime Minister and His Holiness Bartholomew I. It took place on 15 August 2009. One of the problems most troubling the Orthodox community at that time was the issue of bishops’ citizenship. “Turkish law requires all bishops working for the patriarchate in Turkey to be Turkish citizens. Only a small number of Orthodox bishops were such. On that occasion, Erdogan promised to give them the right to citizenship, to work here and in future also be elected patriarch”. By keeping that promise the premier has helped the Orthodox Synod to survive.

The benevolence of power towards the minorities is often manifested in “favors” of this kind. But we hear many times that favors – welcome as they may be – cannot suffice. It is necessary that certain rights be also formalized. The lawyer Kezban Hatemi, who for years has been dealing with minority issues, tells us of the possibility that Ankara may sign concordats with the various Christian Churches, on the model of the European States and Germany in particular. It is a very forward-looking proposal, far from the concrete situation. For some time it may be necessary to make do with the favors.

Other very delicate issues remain unresolved. Such as that of the Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada in the Sea of Marmara. The Turkish constitution requires that all religious teaching be subject to State control. In this situation, it is impossible for the Christian churches to supervise young aspirants to the priesthood. Father Dositheos tells us: “His Holiness and the Synod are really convinced that Prime Minister Erdogan wants to find a solution to the problem. But the State – Ankara – resists. We’re waiting for next year, and the new Constitution”.

There are many expectations centering on the promise made by the AKP of constitutional reform. But despite its enormous success in the elections, the ruling party does not have the majority necessary to change the constitution unilaterally – that is, without collaborating with other political forces and without asking the opinion of the people through referendum. The new Charter will only be the result of compromise among differing forces, and primarily between the executive and the independent candidates elected with the support of the Kurdish minority party. Among them is also Erol Dora, the first Christian to enter parliament in more than fifty years. Coming from the Syrian minority Dora has often worked for the Christian communities as a lawyer. But he takes pains to point out that he was elected by the votes of “Muslims and Christians”. Non “sectarian” representation aimed at giving a voice to all minorities in the country in the rewriting of the Constitution.


“Tolerance is not enough. However...”

Handshakes, the election of a Christian, the change in political language. Let us go back to Rober Koptas of Agos: “In Turkish ‘public discourse’ up to now, Armenians and Christians were considered enemies, but that discourse is changing”. The issue of the minorities is still being addressed in terms of ‘tolerance’, it’s true. “For me”, continues Koptas, “tolerance is not the ideal, the point of arrival. Until now, however, the nationalists saw Greeks, Armenians, Jews as a danger to the nation, tolerance is a good thing in comparison”.

We also discuss the Armenian genocide of 1915. For decades, Turkish schoolchildren were taught that those events never took place: public opinion can’t change overnight. But “if Turkey becomes a full democracy, if it becomes possible to speak openly about these issues, then a government will be able to acknowledge the Armenian massacre”.

The change of mindset is already taking place and seems to have been noticed also by sections of the CHP, the main opposition force. Its current leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, is insisting on the need to pay attention to the problem of the Kurdish minority and also turning to the more religious element in Turkey. But resistance within his own party is strong and it is unclear whether Kiliçdaroglu will be able to give a shape to the party that is less nationalistic and close to that of European social democrat parties. But that there is talk like this is already a meaningful signal.

Thus, the role of the military in Turkish political life is changing. Bleda Kurtdarcan, of Galatasaray University, is an expert on military affairs. Nowadays, researchers like him have access to military budgets so they can study their structures. Years ago it would have been unthinkable. The Ergenekon case is still open, however. According to the prosecutor who has investigated this secret structure, a group of army officers planned  to murder some well-known figures in 2007 so as to stir up the fear that Turkey was turning into an Islamic state. Among these there was that of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, that of Father Andrea Santoro and also of three evangelical Christians. According to some observers – including reporters of the weekly Agos – the murder of Monsignor Luigi Padovese was also linked to the plot. And in recent weeks, transcripts of the evidence suggest that the plotters aimed to kill the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

The plot failed. Intervention by the army, whom the plotters expected to come in to “restore order”, did not get the necessary support, either in Turkey or abroad. And the Christian communities, victims of those attacks, continue to hope to live in peace in the holy land of Turkey.


Archbishop Ruggero Franceschini among some priests [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Archbishop Ruggero Franceschini among some priests [© Lorenzo Biondi]

A discreet presence

Considering the tragedies of recent years, one would expect the Christians to be now segregated. The reality is more complex. June 13 was the feast of St Anthony of Padua. We visited the church dedicated to the saint in Istanbul, with its neo-Gothic facade overlooking Istiklal Caddesi, a street devoted to shopping, tourism, nightlife. There was a steady stream of comings and goings in the church also, and only some of those who came inside were Christians. They looked around with curiosity, observing the statues of the saints, asking for information. Some lit candles, and stopped to pray. Among them there were also Muslims, women with veils over their heads. They asked Saint Anthony for small favors: to make peace after a quarrel, for a calm family life. Anthony’s sanctity is recognized by all, regardless of denominational divisions.

In Turkey two opposing realities co-exist. On the one hand there are the thuggish attacks on religious. It’s difficult to wipe away decades of nationalist propaganda against the Christian “missionaries” – accused of being the vanguard of Western colonizers. On the other hand, there are the friendships rising out of the daily encounters between Christians and Muslims.

The nuns from Ivrea, who run the Italian school in Smyrna tell us of the esteem the locals have for them: many of their students are not Christians. In Antioch Father Domenico Bertogli tells us that the donations made to the tiny local Caritas office come in part from Muslim donors. The fact should not surprise us: Caritas helps people in need regardless of their faith. The Muslims know this, and show their gratitude by concrete gestures.

Recently, however, the organization has been going through a difficult time: in the past, thanks to the coverage by the Vatican, Caritas figured as an institution linked to a foreign country, whereas now the association is subject to Turkish law on religious foundations. As such it is not authorized to hold property and must, therefore, put it in the name of individuals who work for it; for example, Bishop Padovese, before his tragic death. At present, however, the assets held in the bishop’s name have been frozen by the State, which refuses to return them to Caritas. A problem that would not have occured if there had been an “international” safeguard.

Caritas in Turkey disposes of few means, but sometimes it requires very little to give witness to the faith. “If you look at the numbers”, says the nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Lucibello, “our presence in Turkey is minimal: we are like a tiny parish in a small village in a western country. Yet our discreet witness bears fruit, there is respect and a following”. If you were to “measure” the health of the local church by counting heads, it would make a sad scenario. Whereas looking at people here the happiness that springs from faith is an obvious fact. “There is no need for a noisy presence”, continued Archbishop Lucibello, “to the sound of beating drums. What is fundamental is living a witness of life, which does not make an impression through a show”.

A nun who left Italy at the time of Padovese’s death, confesses her worries on her arrival to Turkey. “Unable to wear the habit, unable to teach religion in school, I thought: what am I going there for! I, who in Italy used to go on all the marches... When you get here you realize that it’s not a matter of doing or saying something in particular. It’s enough to stay here, in this holy land, where the apostles lived, and entrust oneself to the Lord”.

The experience of the Church in Turkey is all in that. It’s the homely air one breathes among the children in the courtyard of Father Domenico in Antioch. Or in Tarsus, when the religious eat together with the people from neighboring towns who have come for the Feast of St Paul. Father Roberto, who is now eighty-five and has spent more than sixty years here in Turkey, hands a banknote to a family who doesn’t have the money for the trip back. During the meal the nuns point out a married couple or a child to Monsignor Franceschini, give him an update on marriages and births.

One might ask: what work do priests in Turkey have to do given there are so few Christians? There’s never a lack of it, to tell the truth, what with the needs of local people and the reception of pilgrims. But “it’s not a matter of doing something”. It’s enough just to be here, safeguarding this holy land. Holy because Paul was born here, Barnabas and Peter lived here. St John is buried at Ephesus, under the ruins of a church overlooking the sea. Our Lady, who according to tradition followed John here, “fell asleep” and was assumed into heaven from here.

The Capuchin fathers are fond of recalling the advice St Francis gave to the friars who were leaving to Asia Minor. There are two ways of performing the mission: “One way is to avoid quarrels or disputes, but be subject to every human creature for the love of God and to confess they be Christians”. Discreet witness. “The other way is that when they see it pleases the Lord, they proclaim the word of God”. Alert to the things of the world, capable of following and harvesting the good things that happen around them.

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