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As Erdoğan moves, a precarious situation for Christians in Turkey



Max Lindenman - published on 07/21/16

President unlikely to round up Christians en masse, but who can predict?

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in a snit, and on a tear. Having survived last Friday’s military coup, the Turkish president has declared a three-month “state of emergency” and claimed a free hand in steam-shoveling old enemies. As of this writing, he has “detained” 6,000 military personnel and 3,000 judges. Some are being held in a sports stadium, “a development,” observes The Independent, “that has ominous similarities with mass arrests in South American coups in the last century.” Political prisoners are being refused contact with family and legal counsel, even by phone. For good measure, Erdoğan’s revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers and demanded the resignation of 1,500 university deans.

It’s worth pausing at this point to consider the precarious situation of Turkey’s 120,000 Christians. Most represent remnants of ethnic minority groups removed from the Turkish heartland during the final years of Ottoman rule – Armenians and Assyrians murdered during the First World War, Greeks expatriated according to the terms of the Lausanne Agreement. Consequently, their very presence in the country has always carried a whiff of subversion.

I lived in Turkey from March 2014, through March 2015, in what had once been a Greek-speaking village in Bursa Province. All traces of the town’s Christian past were long obliterated, save one – a public drinking fountain where an Orthodox church once stood. With the nearest church across the Sea of Marmara and no time off given on Sundays, it was a year of sacramental drought for this Catholic writer.

Since its rise to power following the 2002 elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has done some subverting of its own, pushing to replace the republic’s secular foundation with an Islamic one. Over the same period, the popular image of Christians has, if anything, fallen. Since the early 2000s, Turkish pop culture and the tabloid press have made Christians, foreign and domestic, into objects of lurid conspiracy theorizing. Churches have been stormed and defaced, priests have been threatened, attacked, and – in the cases of Fr. Andrea Santoro and Msgr. Luigi Padovese – murdered.

But despite the danger, Christian congregations in Turkey continue to spread the faith, though they often go about it with a circumspection unknown in the West. Several years ago, a woman I know in Istanbul decided to convert to Catholicism. Reaching the nearest church, in upscale Beyoğlu, required a trip of several hours. The parish RCIA program consisted of exactly one man – the Capuchin friar who served as pastor. Nevertheless, thanks the Holy Spirit and the diligence of all parties, the neophyte was received into the Church this past spring.

Though Erdoğan has hosted a papal visit and restored some historic churches in the hope of attracting pilgrims, his administration has also expropriated six churches in Diyarbakir, the scene of frequent skirmishing between government troops and Kurdish separatists. Just last month, Erdoğan’s relations with the papacy suffered gravely after Pope Francis condemned the century-old Ottoman massacres of Armenians as genocide – a characterization the Turkish government has always contested. Striking back, Erdoğan accused the pope of speaking from “delirium,” while his vice-premier, Nurettin Canikli, reproved his “crusader mentality.”

For fomenting disloyalty in his armed forces, Erdoğan now blames the influence of Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. As founder of Hizmet, a worldwide Islamic movement with a reputation for obedience and secrecy, Gülen has made a priority of dialogue with Christians. His contacts include St. John Paul II, as well as Bartholomew I, the Orthodox patriarch. He has denied any involvement in the coup, suggesting that Erdoğan staged it himself in order to justify his current power grab.  Whatever the truth of the matter, guilt by association is a real worry for minorities living in cauldrons of intrigue and paranoia.

It’s highly unlikely, of course, that Erdoğan will round Christians up en masse. Not every petulant would-be dictator goes completely rogue. But he foiled the coup, in part, by calling on citizens to march in the streets. In the event, the mobs did more than simply march: they attacked and beat soldiers and – according to some reports – beheaded one. By now those mobs have dissolved, and the people in them returned to the business of everyday living. But there’s no guarantee they’ve lost their taste for vigilante justice.

The largest Catholic church in Turkey is St. Anthony’s, in Istanbul. In its courtyard stands a statue of Saint Pope John XXIII, who endeared himself to the residents of the ancient city while serving as Apostolic Delegate. Later, as pope, he endeared himself to the world by addressing the encyclical Pacem in terris to “all men of good will.” Now seems a good time to petition him that men of good will prevail – somehow.

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