The cross and the crescent
Why Christians feel under threat in today's Turkey
THIS has been a bad year for Orhan Picaklar. As a Protestant missionary in Samsun, on the Black Sea, he has had death threats and his church has been repeatedly stoned. Local newspapers called him a foreign agent. A group of youths tried to kidnap him as he was driving home. His pleas for police protection have gone unheeded.
Mr Picaklar is not alone. All over Turkey, Christians are under attack. In January Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian newspaper editor, was shot dead in Istanbul by a teenager who said he had “insulted Turkishness”. In April two Turks and a German, all evangelists, were murdered in Malatya. Their killers bound and tortured them before slitting their throats. In December an Italian Catholic priest was knifed by a teenager in Izmir. Another Italian priest was shot dead in Trabzon in 2006.
Many blame the attacks on a new ultra-nationalism, tinged with Islamic militancy, that has swept across Turkey. Unemployed teenagers in the Black Sea region seem especially prone to it. “The plight of Christians is critical,” says Husnu Ondul, president of the Ankara-based Turkish Human Rights Association. Like many others, he believes that the “deep state”, comprising a few judges, army officers and security officials who need enemies to justify their grip on power, is behind the attacks.
That may seem far-fetched. Yet evidence leaked to the media in the Dink and Malatya cases points to collusion between the perpetrators and rogue elements in the police and the army. It also suggests that the Istanbul police were tipped off about Mr Dink's murder a year before it was carried out. “So why did the Istanbul police do nothing to prevent it?” wonders Ergin Cinmen, a lawyer for the Dink family.
Respecting the religious freedom of non-Muslims is essential to Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union. Laws against Christians repairing their churches have been relaxed. Overriding objections from pious constituents, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party has just restored an ancient Armenian church in eastern Turkey. School textbooks are being purged of an anti-Western bias.
Yet many Christian grievances remain. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resists calls to reopen the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary on Heybeli island off Istanbul, shut down in 1971. Turkey refuses to recognise the ecumenical title of the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of over 200m Orthodox Christians. The patriarch, a loyal Turkish citizen, has lobbied hard for Turkey's EU membership. But this has only reinforced suspicions among ultra-nationalist detractors, who accuse him of trying to “Christianise” Turkey and wanting a Vatican-style state in the heart of Istanbul.
Never mind that the Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul has dwindled to 4,000 souls, many of them too old to follow their children abroad. Nor that the patriarch must under Turkish law be a Turkish citizen, a rule which is making it difficult to find a successor to Bartholomew I. “They [ie, the Turks] apparently won't regard the conquest of Constantinople as complete until the patriarchate ceases to exist and all Christians have been frightened away,” suggests one restorer of icons in Istanbul.
The government has yet to approve a draft bill to help non-Muslims recover thousands of properties that have been confiscated by the state and either sold or left to decay. The Aya Yorgi church in Istanbul's Edirnekapi district, which was badly damaged in an earthquake, is one sad example. Its walls are cracked, its roof is leaking; a marble angel lies in pieces on the floor. “All we ask is to be permitted to rescue our church, but we cannot hammer a single nail,” complains Bishop Dionysios, a Greek Orthodox prelate who still conducts services there.
Many Christians concede that AK has treated them better than its secular predecessors did. They blame the deep state for their recent troubles. But the excuse of the deep state's power is wearing thin after AK's big victory in July's general election. “With such a strong mandate, the government's failure to meet our demands can only mean one thing, that the deep state is still in charge,” says a Christian priest. Or perhaps that AK believes in religious freedom for Muslims, but not Christians.
Dec 19th 2007 | ISTANBUL