Christian minority faces persecution in Turkey

  • May 11, 2007
St. Paul’s splendid image of the church as the Body of Christ reminds us that all Christians suffer when even the smallest part of the Body is injured. It is this New Testament insight into the nature of the church that explains, at least in part, the pain and concern felt among Christians everywhere about our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters in Turkey.
They are certainly not numerous. According to a U.S. Library of Congress estimate, there are about 207,000 Christians in Turkey’s population of 70.5-million. These believers belong to the Orthodox churches, Armenian, Syrian and Western-rite Catholic communions and various Protestant denominations.

Though few in number, all are being adversely affected by rising anti-Christian intolerance and persecution in this overwhelmingly Islamic country. No recent events have underscored the situation of Turkey’s Christians more firmly than the murders of believers whose only offence was their forthright witness to Christ.

Early last year, the Italian Catholic missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro was shot dead in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Trabzon, in northeast Turkey. Last month, two Turkish converts and a German Lutheran pastor were brutally killed at a Protestant publishing house in Malatya, a radical Islamic stronghold in eastern Turkey. The killers in Malatya were motivated by religious fanaticism, police said. According to a Turkish newspaper, one suspect told police, “We didn’t do this for ourselves. We did it for our religion. May this be a lesson to the enemies of religion.”

These and other religiously motivated deaths, along with many other acts of persecution, led the U.S. government-sponsored Commission on International Religious Freedom this month to issue a loud alarm about violations in Turkey. The commission’s report concluded that “the members of some minority groups, particularly members of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, are sometimes subject to societal attacks, usually by nationalists or religious extremists.” Christian churches in Turkey are often ethnic minorities, which has led extreme nationalist Turks to question their loyalty to  Turkey, the report said.

These serious charges come at a dangerous and volatile moment in the history of the Turkish republic. At the time of this writing, tens of thousands of demonstrators — in some cases, millions — are taking to the streets throughout the country to protest what they see as the impending collapse of Turkey’s traditional “secularism.” In using this term, Turks intend something different from our usual Western meaning of the word: less a corrosive coarsening and cheapening of life brought about by anti-Christian thought — our dilemma in the West — than the classically liberal, constitutional separation of state and religion. The Islamic headscarf for women — to cite an example of how far “secularist” militancy goes in Turkey — is banned in the parliament, government offices, schools and universities.

Since the republic’s foundation in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s political and military elite have strongly supported “secularism” in the liberal sense. It has been a cornerstone in Turkey’s fervent bid, long frustrated, to become a member of the European Union.     

But this drive by the leadership to join Europe has been overtaken by events — critically, by the upswing in Islamic and nationalistic activism. Since 2002, when the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party of former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdo’an, was swept into power, Islamic radicalism has greatly increased — and, with it, violent attacks on Christian churches, the killing of Christian ministers and laypeople, and more subtle acts of persecution.

In an op-ed piece in the Turkish daily Milliyet,  on the murders at the Christian publishing house, columnist Hasan Cemal wrote that “words are not enough to curse such an atrocity.” Cemal roundly condemned the religious and racist fanaticism that caused it. He asked: “In what kind of a quagmire was that mentality abandoning itself to such barbarity raised?... How were the seeds of hatred sown in this quagmire? How did impatience toward differences, lack of tolerance and enmity against ‛others’ grow like poison ivy in this quagmire?”

We hope that Turks will swiftly answer these questions, renounce the forces at work against their country’s Christian minority and rediscover the vision of democratic tolerance enshrined in their constitution and public life when they emerged into the modern world in 1923.

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