Monday, November 20, 2006

Turkey Looms...

...the journey, not the bird.

Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey for historic talks with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

"Reciprocity"--the granting of Christian minorities in Muslim lands the same rights as Muslim minorities enjoy in non-Muslim countries--would benefit all Christians there.

But Regensburg looms. So does history. NCR columnist John Allen has more:
Often, however, the obstacles facing Christians are a matter of petty bureaucratic harassment rather than formal legal discrimination.

In Mersin, for example, a port city on the Turkish Mediterranean, a handful of Capuchin missionaries once operated a center for the formation of young Turkish Christians. Shortly after 2000, however, it was shut down on the grounds that it was "not authorized by the Ministry of Public Instruction." The government moved to expropriate the facility, triggering a legal challenge by the Capuchins which will probably drag on for years. The Capuchins also offered courses in Italian and English for Turkish adults in Mersin, with no catechetical agenda, yet those courses too were ordered closed.

In Adana, another Mediterranean city, a Catholic parish was forced to close in 2005 after a bar and disco opened up in an adjacent space featuring round-the-clock, ear-splitting music. The mayor had promised the Catholic pastor that the bar would be moved, especially since the spot was not zoned for commercial activity, but in the end nothing happened. Eventually the parish closed because it became impossible to conduct normal pastoral activity. Given that it's virtually impossible to obtain permission to build a new church in Turkey, today the few hundred Catholics in Adana have to travel 80 kilometers to Mersin for Mass, while the pastor relocated to Iskenderun.

These and similar stories make up the daily fabric of Christian life in Turkey. Yet when I interviewed Patriarch Mesrob II, head of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Turkey, last year, he rather surprisingly said he hoped Benedict would not bring up such matters, saying it would amount to "interfering in the internal affairs of Turkey."

Why the sensitivity?

Because Western challenges regarding the status of Christians in Turkey today don't occur in a historical vacuum. In fact, there's a long and not terribly edifying history of foreign governments, especially Europeans, insisting upon special privileges for Christians within the old Ottoman Empire, which from the 16th to the 20th century was the main carrier of Islamic civilization. Such appeals are associated in the Turkish mind with treachery and anti-Islamic hostility, so that Benedict's rhetoric on "reciprocity" risks being misunderstood as merely the latest installment in a centuries-old story of Westerners who don't have Turkey's best interests at heart using the status of Christians as a classic "Trojan Horse."

For centuries, Greeks and Armenians as well as other Christian groups within the Ottoman Empire prospered, so that it was fairly easy for many Orthodox to say, "Rather the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the pope." Part of the reason was that almost from the very beginning of Ottoman rule, the emperors granted a series of what came to be known as "capitulations," first to the French in 1536, then to all foreign merchants operating in the empire. These capitulations granted exemptions from various taxes and laws as well as a series of special privileges. Eventually the capitulations were claimed as an extraterritorial right by all Christians living in Ottoman lands.
He has a suggestion:
Thus if Benedict XVI elects to push the reciprocity issue in Turkey -- and there are powerful arguments for doing so -- he should understand that he doesn't begin with a blank slate. It will be important for the pope to make clear that he's not talking about a new form of "capitulation" aimed at privileging Christians, or undermining Turkey's power or prestige.

One possible way to do that is to engage the religious liberty issue across the board in Turkey, for Muslims as well as Christians. It's still a delicate question in an officially secular state where many public forms of Islamic faith and practice are discouraged or officially banned. Under the modernizing program of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey in the early 20th century, the Islamic caliphate was abolished, Islamic courts and brotherhoods were banned, and both the female headscarf and the traditional Turkish fez were prohibited. The Muslim calendar was replaced with the European system, polygamy was banned, and the Turkish language was rendered into the Latin alphabet.
The School of the Americas
School of the Americas: Nov. 6-21
NCR cafe is covering the lead up to and the annual protest at Fort Benning, Ga., with podcasts and discussion tables about nonviolence, Christian peacemaking and U.S. Foreign policy.
Listen and read the material, and then join a disucssion: SOA material.

While many of these measures had the desired effect of placing Turkey on a pro-Western, modernizing course, they also drove Islam underground and converted it into a permanent source of political radicalism. Today, Turkey is struggling to strike a balance between healthy expressions of religious faith while at the same time preserving the secular character of its state.

If Benedict phrases his reciprocity challenge in terms of a broad appeal for religious freedom for all Turkish citizens, it could resonate with many Muslims who themselves feel frustrated with what many see as an overly restrictive environment. (A recent poll found that 68 percent of Turks regard the ban on headscarves, which is widely flouted in practice, to be a violation of religious freedom). In the long run, this may prove a more effective way of improving the lot of Turkish Christians, as opposed to a direct challenge on their behalf.
He makes sense.

But is this Pope Benedict's agenda?

The Holy See has certainly expressed reservations over Turkey's involvement with Europe. Vatican officials have objected to EU motions that would fast-track Turkey's membership. The Pope himself, while still a cardinal, had questioned the cultural compatibility between Europe and the secular-Muslim democracy. He made the case for the importance of all faithful to adhere to reason and reject violence committed in God's name.

But doesn't the Body of Christ have a more pressing need? Isn't it long past time that we all breathe through two lungs?

I hope that the Holy Father seeks to further the fruitful cooperation between Catholic and Orthodox communions. I pray that through his efforts--and the Patriarchs' response--the Catholic Church of East and West finally become one once more.

The world needs our united witness.

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