Home > Archives > 06 - 2011 > “This new air that one breathes in Turkey”  
from issue no. 06 - 2011

Interview with Louis Pelâtre

“This new air that one breathes in Turkey”

The Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul tells of the life of the Christian communities in a country that changes

Interview with Louis Pelâtre by Lorenzo Biondi

“It’s because of Turkish ‘secularism’ and not Islam, that the Church can not exist officially”. His Excellency Monsignor Louis Pelâtre, Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul, describes for us the situation of the Christian community in Turkey viewed from the metropolis on the Bosphorus.


Louis Pelâtre [© Lorenzo Biondi]

Louis Pelâtre [© Lorenzo Biondi]

How are the conditions of life of Christians in Turkey changing?

LOUIS PELÂTRE: A noticeable change. On the one hand because the Catholic community has changed its “face”; a large number of immigrants have arrived from the Philippines, the African countries, while the number of “Levantines” is diminishing. They leave here, for France and other European countries. Those who leave expect to have life easier in a ‘Christian’ country... But then, today, what country can call itself Christian? When I arrived in Turkey forty years ago, one breathed an air of xenophobia. Today, some problems remain for minorities, but is it different anywhere else? If in France an immigrant called Mohammed is looking for work, does he have the same opportunities as others of finding it?

In the West – especially after the death of Monsignor Padovese – talk of a Christianity “under siege” in Turkey was heard. Is this true?

It was a tragedy, but I do not think that it was an event attributable to the spread of an anti-Christian sentiment. There is talk of an underground movement in the Turkish State, that would act against the current government and that emerged with the Ergenekon affair. But still today it is really hard to understand the causes of that assassination.

Some claim that Turkey is today a less ‘secular’ country and therefore less safe for Christians...

I disagree. I am French and I know the ‘hard’ side of secularism: in my Brittany it was forbidden to build Catholic schools. And remember that the secularism of Atatürk took inspiration from that of the French: religion was strongly opposed, even the Muslim one. Only its identifying, cultural aspect was absorbed. Erdogan is anything but a fanatic, he is an intelligent politician: he understands that the people must be addressed for what they are, not for what they are imagined to be. As regards Christians, it’s because of Turkish ‘secularism’ – and not Islam – that the Church can not exist officially in the country. It doesn’t seem to me that the problem for Christians comes from the fact that girls are allowed to wear headscarves at university...

Do you expect progress on the official recognition of the Church?

At present it is impossible that the State recognize the Church: it is against the Constitution, which does not recognize any religion, not even Islam. It seems that now Prime Minister Erdogan wants to change things. He himself has suffered from this situation, when he was mayor of Istanbul: he was jailed for an ‘attack on secularism’, having quoted a poet who called the minarets ‘our bayonets’. Lots of trouble for a quote: a little like the Pope in Regensburg... Before that event Erdogan and I had met several times, and then from prison he sent me a few notes, as to all public figures in the city. There are many who still oppose the change that he hopes for, but it was democracy that brought us to the current situation and the outcome of the vote must be respected.

Can Turkey be a “model” of coexistence between Islam and democracy?

The term ‘Turkish model’ is being spoken of and that in itself is interesting. You may not agree with everything that Atatürk did, but Turkish secularism has had an extraordinary influence in the Middle East. Today Turkey seems to have found a new equilibrium, but the transition beyond that ‘hard’ secularism is not yet finished.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português