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The State of Religious Liberty in Turkey

11/26/2006 - 3:15 PM PST

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Interview With R.M.T. Schmid of the Becket Institute

ROME, NOV. 26, 2006 (Zenit) - The Christian churches in Turkey want more religious freedom, even as they realize that the country's secularism might also be a bulwark against radical Islam, says an observer.

Raphaela M.T. Schmid, the Rome director of the Becket Institute for Religious Liberty, offered that assessment in this interview.

Schmid just returned from Istanbul where she spoke with religious authorities and government officials who will be meeting with Benedict XVI later this week.

Q: What is the state of religion in Turkey?

Schmid: Turkey is not really an Islamic country, even if it is over 99% Muslim and mosque attendance is going up.

Until the 1920s it was a theocracy under Shariah law. Ataturk saw this as a stumbling block for social and commercial progress. He reinvented Turkey as a secular state and helped Turks gain the reputation of being "Muslims with a Protestant work ethic." His reforms included the abolition of polygamy, equal rights for women, coed public schools, and the prohibition of religious garb in public.

Ataturkist laws have been applied in such a way that Turkey de facto has an unofficial established religion, a moderate sort of Sunni Islam. The state appoints imams; it oversees what is preached in the mosques and what is taught in Koran schools.

Q: Why are Muslim Turks not reacting against this sort of state control?

Schmid: Recent polls indicate that the majority see themselves as Turks first and as Muslims second. Ataturk is universally revered as a hero; his memory and legacy are protected by law. But behind this picture of national pride, Ataturkist secularism and Muslim identity make for conflicting loyalties.

Turks who want to be good citizens of the republic may also want to wear the veil and send their kids to a Koran school of their choice. What makes this even trickier is the concern that religious freedom may be exploited by those who are pushing for a more radical, politicized Islam in Turkey. The military so far has been the protector of the secularity of the state. The question is whether that will remain so in the future.

So, it is important to understand that these problems cannot simply be resolved by appealing to international human rights tribunals.

The Turkish attitude toward religion in the public sphere is something that is intimately tied up with the modern notion of Turkish national identity, a notion more complex than Islamic law and tradition would have, where nationality and citizenship are defined by religion.

Q: What about the Christian churches in Turkey?

Schmid: Christian leaders say that it's easy to live in Turkey as a Christian. Turkey is known for its tradition of a very tolerant Islam, which goes back to medieval times.

It is striking, though, how the number of Christians has dwindled. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century half of the population of Istanbul was Christian. Now Christians make up less than 1%.

The circa 65,000 Armenian Christians in Turkey are the survivors of the ethnic cleansing of 1915-16, which is still a taboo subject. There are about 20,000 Syrian Orthodox and circa 20,000 Catholics.

Most of the Greek Orthodox were exchanged for Greek Muslims that came to Turkey in the '20s. Their patriarch, Bartholomew I, as far as Turks are concerned, is a foreign cleric with a local congregation of not more than 3,000 faithful. The fact that 300 million Christians around the world recognize his authority does not figure.

In fact, all Christian churches are regarded as foreign and relations with them are handled mostly by the Foreign Ministry, even if their members are Turkish citizens and the presence of those churches predates Turkey, the Ottoman Empire and Islam by centuries.

Q: What are the concrete problems Christians face in Turkey?

Schmid: Christians can freely worship, but there are difficulties. Limitations imposed by the state have left their schools struggling. Christian seminaries were closed in the '70s and the communities find it difficult to train their leaders and teachers.

There is a treaty which guarantees legal status to non-Muslim religious communities, but it doesn't specify, so the interpretation by the Turkish state is rather random. The Catholic Church, for example, does not have legal status; it cannot own or inherit properties, etc.

So, the Christian churches want more religious freedom but they too are aware that the secularism of the Turkish state may also be a bulwark against a more radical form of Islam.

Q: What is the significance of the papal visit in Turkey?

Schmid: Of course, this is not the first Pope to visit. In recent times both Paul VI and John Paul II have been ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. CaanPolat
    1 year ago

    This article is very superficial and reflects little understanding of the Turkish situation. The Kemalist mentality was in fact anti-religious...period. it sought to break the power of religion over the lives of Turkish citizens while at the same time creating a secular, authoritarian state that was ethno-linguistically and religiously homogeneous....meaning, no place for Christians or people who insisted on their own identity, like the Kurds. Ethnic cleansing continued way after 1915-16, right up until the 1960s, the last pogrom...against remaining Istanbul Greeks in the 1950s. This was a kind of radical social engineering that would be condemned anywhere else in the world, but Ataturk was a clever saleman. From the arrival in power of the "Islamist" AKParty in 2002, religious minority communities, as well as ethnic minorities have enjoyed a genuine improvement in status and this continued right up until 2010, when the reforms slowed down. Kurds and other ehtnic groups have more freedom of cultural and linguistic expression, including in the media; there is enough freedom of expression in general to discuss once taboo subjects like the Armenian genocide and when ethnic Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was murdered by an ultra-nationalist in 2007, hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims marched in his funeral protesting against the crime, under the banner: "We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Armenian." and "This is a sin against Islam." this was not the reaction that the ultra-nationalists were expecting, but Turkey had changed. Turks now talk about discovering their partial or total Armenian or Syriac roots and some have converted to Christianity. Churches have gotten their seized foundation property back and many churches are being refurbished. there is a long way to go, but it is democracy and the arrival of a government that believes in both the need for faith and the tradition of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society, that made thishappen. Unfortunately, as I said, things have slowed down, as the ruling party does snot want to pay the political price at the moment for standing up further to the nationalists. Just as they are seeping into the ruling party, the moderate Muslim believers are very disappointed with the party's lack of interest in continued reform and the increasingly authroitarian instincts of the PM Erdogan. the bottom line is this: it is a group of true believing Muslims who support democracy and captialism, NOT the dictatorial secular statists who still love Ataturk that have done the most for the Christians and Jews. That said, there is a long way to go.

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