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Papal Visit to Turkey

John Allen provides a good "backgrounder" to Pope Benedict's upcoming trip to Turkey, which starts on November 28th. He notes that while Turkey is one of the few Islamic states where conversion is not illegal, significant restrictions on religious freedom remain and the Christian communities in the country face significant challenges:

Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but by any standard Turkey's Christians represent a tiny minority. The Patriarch of Constantinople presides over perhaps as few as 2,000 souls. The Greek Orthodox presence in Turkey was eviscerated by a "population exchange" between Greece and Turkey in 1922, when almost a million and half Turkish citizens who were Orthodox Christians were sent packing to Greece, while a million Muslims in Greece were thrust into Turkey. There are still some 100,000 Armenian Christians in Turkey, along with roughly 30,000 Catholics divided across a variety of rites.

Whatever their numbers, there's no doubt that Christians face serious challenges, some of which are a de jure matter of formal discrimination. Christians, for example, are barred from careers in the military, which is the ultimate source of power and prestige in Turkish society. Christian clergy usually are refused Turkish citizenship, no matter how long they've been in the country. Only recently have they been able to obtain residency permits valid for more than a few months, paying a tax of 0.50 Euro (about 64 U.S. cents) for every day in the country. Because Christian churches have no legal personality, parishes and schools have to be bought and sold in the name of private Turkish citizens, a requirement that generates all manner of property disputes and administrative headaches. Seminaries for both the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Armenian Orthodox Church have been closed by government order since 1971. 

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My knowledge of 20th century Turkey is shamefully inadequate. What I'm curious about is to what extent the disabilities faced by Christian communities in Turkey go back to the rather disgraceful attempt to dismember the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Sevres at the end of the first world war, and to what extent it is a product of the more recent Islamist revival in the Middle East. I don't think the leaders of the resistance in the early 20's were Islamists at all.

Having friends in Istanbul, I make biennial return trips to Turkey. The few Catholic churches that I have run across in Istanbul have a few Turkish hangers-on during the day who are eager to show visitors their church. Most of the parishioners are, of course, non-Turkish and I suspect my tour guides are paid staff as opposed to loyal, unemployed faithful.I have heard from a 68 year old Armenian post-Christian friend that Christians have always kept a low profile, even in the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The one church I did visit in Izmir is in a totally unidentifiable building and the sanctuary is in the basement!The countryside appears to be totally bereft of Christian churches, particularly after the population exchange in the early 1920s. Even the former Christian underground villages and churches in and around Konya are simply decaying relics of what is now an irrelevant past.Kemal Ataturk introduced Westernization with a vengeance and part of his change was to secularize at least the large cities. To this day his shrine in Ankara is as close to a religious monument that can be expect to be found in Turkey. The vast rural regions remain at least nominally Islamic, but the former Greek regions have almost no signs of their former Orthodox presence. There is a small hilltop village called Sirence, just outside of Selcuk (the primary entrance town for Ephesus), that had a large Greek population and the two extant church skeletons are being slowly restored by American money from Ohio. The last time I was there I talked with a Greek woman whose grandparents had been relocated from there. Needless to say, her perspective was quite different from that of the locals.The Armenian cemetery in Istanbul remains seedy but undefiled and hidden behind high walls, as is the accompanying Armenian church.I last visited Turkey in April 2006 and, in talking with some of my Turkish friends, discovered the militant Islamism has started to surface even in Istanbul. The current cause celebre is to allow covered women access to government buildings, a practice currently not permitted. If they want to enter (including universities) they have to uncover their heads. The secularists are dead set against that, but they are becoming more fearful of violent reactions if the matter is brought to a head.I am glad that I discovered Turkey in 1988 and have had the chance to visit it many times since then. I hope that things dont take a change for the worse, particularly if (more likely, when) Turkey is denied entrance to the EU. The amount of visible anti-Americanism this last trip was more noticeable as well.

What was so disgraceful about the attempted dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire? The Ottoman treatment of the Kurds, the refusal to acknowledge the massacre of the Armenians, and the unfairness of Ottoman treatment of the Patriarchate of Constantinople--all these leave me with little good will for the Turkish state and its attempt to enter the European Union.

Goodness Joe, are you imitating B16 who does not want the Turks in the union because they are not Christians. Do we need Ted Turner who did a lot more for overcoming the cold war by sponsoring interchanges amongst Russian and American groups.We probably need Turner to foster exchanges in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Of course, our fanatics on the far right will have none of it as they need enemies to support their apocalyptic fantasies. Jesus warned long ago that "a person's enemies are of her own household. "Inimici ejus, domestici ejus."That would be problematic. Not to blame others for our inadequacies.

Since I seem to have lead Professor Gannon into temptation, let me clarify.I don't have all that much good will for the Turkish state myself, as opposed to the individual Turks I have known, whom I typically prefer to Greeks abroad, and I doubt that Turkish entry into the EU is the right answer to the right question, although saying they belong in the kind of club that produces a Nikos Sampson may be a bit much.I wouldn't criticize the dismemberment of the Southern and Eastern provinces (Palestine, Iraq, etc.) of the Ottoman Empire as the disaster I consider the Hapsburg Empire to be, although it's hard to think that Attaturk on a bad day could have had worse unintended consequences than Gertrude Bell, but I was actually referring to the attempt to divide up the juicy parts of Anatolia among would-be colonial powers (Treaty of Sevres, 1920), reversed by the Turkish Army and largely undone by the replacement Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This war is even less well known than the Western military interventions in Russia in 1919, and was certainly more unfortunate in its outcome. With the Kurds and Armenians cited in Professor Gannon's post one can certainly argue that self-determination for ethnic minorities should have been the operative principal, but handing over Turkish Territory to the Italians and Greeks as a bribe for fighting the Central Powers completely undercuts that line.Once again I recall my regret that Woodrow Wilson (that great respector of ethnic minorities at home!) and not Benedict XV provided the model for the settlement after the first world war.For what it's worth at least on the international stage I think the Turks did far less harm in this period than the would-be imperialist allied powers of Italy, Greece, and Serbia.

Gene O'Grady:I am afraid I am a Hellenist by sentiment and would prefer to see Constantinople back in Hellenic hands, but I recognize that this is not something that is likely to happen. I have nothing against Turks as individuals nor for that matter do I have a special affectionn for all Greeks as individuals. I take them as I find them. Nonetheless I find the stubborn refusal to acknowledge the massacre of the Armenians on the part of the Turkish government to be particularly repellent, and I think an independent Kurdistan would be an improvement over the present political arrangements in that area, were it a realistic possibility. Bill,I can see why Benedict thinks what he does. Demographically Europe is in trouble and it does not have much of a tradition in the matter of integrating imported workers, which it cannot at the same time do without. But I think the bishop of Rome would do better not to cause offense to Muslims generally. Those who suffer most from carelessness are the very Christians in the East that he ought above all to care about.