SELÇUK, Turkey — Thankfully, there are places where the simple coexistence of faithful Christians and Muslims is a joy to witness.
In a peaceful grove of trees overlooking the ancient city of Ephesus stands a dignified one-story stone abode called Mary’s House, widely considered to be where the Virgin Mary lived her last years.
Pilgrims — including Muslims, for whom Mary is honored as the virgin mother of Jesus, a great prophet — visit, pray and light candles. In fact, Mary is the woman most frequently mentioned in the Quran and the only one referred to by name.
Pope Benedict celebrated Mass in front of the house on his pilgrimage to Turkey in 2006. Pope John Paul II came in 1979, as did Pope Paul VI in 1967.
The last papal visit underscored the Catholic Church’s hope that Turkey, an emerging economic geopolitical giant — not to mention a massive land bridge joining Europe to the Middle East and Asia — can model positive dialogue between the world’s two global religious powers: Christianity and Islam.
Even faced with the suspicious murder of several clerics, the Catholic Church has forged ahead with dialogue. Most chilling, in 2010, Bishop Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia and President of the Turkish Bishop's Conference, was beheaded by his driver as he prepared to meet Pope Benedict the next day on the island of Cyprus.
So how is Turkey progressing, and what are the Church’s current expectations for a country known as Asia Minor in the New Testament and the birthplace of St. Paul?
A Franciscan friar, hesitant to be named, who lives near Mary’s House, reflected on the Turkish state of affairs: “Few Catholics live in Turkey, and Christians overall live on the margins. But look, here, this shrine is beautiful, and we’ve been allowed to develop it, enhance it. Everyone watches Prime Minister [Recep] Erdoğan intensely for signs of progress.”
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 59, Turkey’s leading political figure since taking office in 2003, served as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, when he was sentenced for publicly reciting a few lines of Islamic poetry and forced to resign. (The law he violated, Article 312, is a controversial rule against inciting religious or ethnic hatred but has been used to arrest journalists and others exercising free speech, incredibly, even employed by Erdoğan himself against perceived opponents.)
As promised, since taking national office, Erdoğan has guided the process of opening this famously secular nation to more religious freedom and minority rights as part of a plan to introduce a range of democratic reforms.
Allowing churches and believers more autonomy is also required for European Union (EU) accession: The EU initiated negotiations with Turkey for EU membership in 2005.
Christians comprise less than 1% of the nation’s 74 million population, which is about 98% Muslim. Though small in number, the Christian churches in Turkey include ancient, historical and culturally significant communities.
According to Reuters and the World Christian Encyclopedia, Christians in Turkey include an estimated 65,000 members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the world’s oldest national church (there are also Armenian Catholics and evangelicals in Turkey); 20,000 Syriac Christians, who speak a form of Aramaic (Jesus’ own language); 30,000 Latin-rite Catholics; and 20,000 Greek Orthodox Christians. Most Christians live in the major cities: Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.
Roots of Turkey’s Fierce Secularism
At the start of World War I (1914), which saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Christians comprised about 20% of the population. Though Ottoman Turkish rule was synonymous with Muslim rule, it was a multiethnic empire that generally tolerated other monotheistic faiths. Each religious community maintained its own schools, courts and charitable networks.
But following World War I, Turkish revolutionary troops systematically defeated the Ottoman Army, French and British forces and the Greeks, many of whom had lived in Asia Minor for centuries.
As part of the peace settlement, a massive population exchange occurred: More than 1 million Greek Orthodox faithful with Ottoman citizenship migrated to Greece, while approximately 400,000 Muslims living in Greece migrated to Turkey — a process that shrunk the Christian population in Turkey significantly. Additionally, a tremendous population of Armenian Christians had already been displaced during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, is most dramatically marked by the vision of its founding father, commander in chief and first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the surname “Atatürk,” meaning “Father of the Turks,” was awarded to Kemal by Parliament), who considered secularism one of the country’s guiding principles.
Under the secularist Turkish Republic, churches are not allowed to own or maintain property, run independent schools or charitable institutions or even to train new clergy in seminaries. The Catholic Church has no legal status, not even as a “non-Muslim community,” because the Church was categorized as a “foreign” entity some 80 years ago.
State control extends to Islam: Sunni Islam is the only practice officially allowed; religious structures are regulated by the Diyanet, a stated office that reports to the prime minister. Clerics are considered state employees, and, until 2007, imams were not allowed to write their own sermons.
Atatürk’s reforms in the 1920s involved eliminating religious influence on the state: The caliphate system was dismantled; sharia (Islamic law) courts were abolished, and even the fez, a hat popular during the Ottoman Empire — and more convenient for Muslim men frequently touching their heads to the ground in prayer — was outlawed. Maintaining a ban on religious clothing for all but titled church officials has been one way Turkey enforces secularism.
To this day in Turkey, statues and portraits of Atatürk are everywhere: on billboards, inside public and private offices, decorating schools, restaurants and train stations. His image is as ubiquitous as that of Mao or Stalin at the height of their power in China and the Soviet Union.
Reform: Headscarves and Restored Property
A political analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara explained to the Register that, over the last few years, Prime Minister Erdoğan has been on a mission to loosen secular strictures without undoing the foundation of Atatürk’s state. “He is juggling between Western critics who push for human rights, hardcore Islamic political supporters who want more Muslim affirmation and the moderate majority of his party, the Justice and Development party.”
On Sept. 30, the prime minister announced a long-awaited package of proposed democratic initiatives. Significantly, children across the country will no longer start each day with the student’s pledge, “Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk.” Some important new language rights were given to the Kurdish minority — 14 million people making up about 18% of the population — restoring forbidden letters to the Kurdish alphabet, allowing the language to be used in political campaigns and legalizing its instruction in private schools.
In terms of religious freedom, the most notable item ends the ban on wearing headscarves in public, but it also makes a significant concession related to one Christian church property.
Until recently, Turkish women wearing headscarves in public could be expelled from universities or fired from public-sector jobs. According to some observers, by gradually easing restrictions on Muslim practice like this one, the Turkish government suggests that its secular ideology can be more flexibly interpreted — a trend with relevance to Christian life.
The most advantageous proposal in Erdoğan’s package pertaining to a Christian community is the government’s agreement to return 244,000 square meters of land around the 1,612-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest Syriac Orthodox religious site and the physical base for keeping that ancient Christian faith alive.
It is the largest restoration of property in Turkish history and continues a commitment made by Erdoğan in 2011 — termed “historic” by Turkey’s papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Lucibello — to return or compensate churches for expropriated property taken or sold by the state after 1936.
But this decision only applies to religious minorities that are officially recognized, including the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Churches and the Armenian, Chaldean and Greek Catholics. The Latin-rite Catholic Church and Protestant denominations have no legal standing in Turkey.
What’s not in Erdoğan’s reform package is causing criticism and disappointment, especially on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I — the spiritual head of the Orthodox Church, who has emerged as a particularly close ally of the Vatican.
Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to attend Pope Francis’ installation was an historic first, signaling increased sympathy between Catholic and Orthodox leaders, an important advance in ecumenical relations. Now, Pope Francis is considering a visit to Jerusalem with the man he calls “My Brother Andrew” (after the Orthodox Church’s lineage through St. Andrew) this January.
When Christianity divided between East and West in 1054, the seat of the Western Church was, of course, in Rome, and the Eastern, or Orthodox, Church stood its ground in Constantinople, which is Istanbul today. For almost 1,000 years, Constantinople was Christendom’s wealthiest city.
But when Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, some Orthodox communities began declaring themselves independent. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church separated from Constantinople in 1454 and established itself as “autocephalous” (self-headed) — while sharing the same beliefs.
Eventually, 14 autocephalous churches came to comprise the Orthodox Christian communion, with the patriarch based in Istanbul called the "first among equals."
Thus, Patriarch Bartholomew is the spiritual leader of the 300-million-member Orthodox Church — the second-largest Christian group in the world. Through epic wars and long sieges, through grandeur and isolation, this sacred office has survived.
But it faces a profound dilemma created by the Turkish government: There is not one seminary to train new priests. In 1971, the secular Turkish government closed the Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki, when its legislature voted to ban private higher education, thereby eliminating the community of monks from whose ranks the next patriarch would normally be chosen.
Since Orthodox bishops must be celibate monks, and, by law, the ecumenical patriarch must be a Turkish citizen, without the Halki seminary, the ecumenical patriarchate could disappear.
“Everyone concerned, including this government, knows that opening the Halki seminary is a fundamental part of the revival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is at the edge of total extinction,” explained Muslim columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz on Oct. 1 in Today’s Zaman, one of three English-language daily newspapers in Turkey.
Despite pressure from the European Union, the U.S. Congress and the Vatican, the Turkish prime minister failed to propose reopening the Halki seminary, a fact widely noted in international coverage of Erdoğan’s democracy package. Patriarch Bartholomew did not react.
However, in 2006, he told the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah, “As Turkish citizens, we pay taxes. We serve in the military. We vote. As citizens, we do everything. We want the same rights. But it does not happen. ... If Muslims want to study theology, there are 24 theology faculties. Where are we going to study?”
Since releasing his democracy package, Erdoğan has evoked the Halki controversy himself.
On Oct. 8, he told his party caucus, “We can open the Halki seminary in an instant” as long as the Greek government takes steps to improve the lives of 150,000 Turkish Muslims living in Western Thrace; for example, by letting the community appoint its own muftis and by approving two mosques to be built in Athens.
Importantly, Erdoğan also declared last week, “The package we announced is neither the first nor the last.” As well, the Turkish Parliament is in the midst of working on a new version of the constitution.
Providing support for improved inter-faith relations is a quiet, powerful, and growing movement, inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar living outside Pittsburgh, PA. The Gülen movement —emphasizing character development, private enterprise, and interfaith dialogue — serves as a grassroots check on extremism, including Erdoğan's temptation to give in to the demands of his political base.
According to his advisers, Bartholomew takes a long view of his Church’s relationship with the Turkish government and continues to think interfaith steps under the current administration are on the right road.
The Patriarch told the Chicago Tribune last year, “The Orthodox-Islamic dialogue has been extremely positive. More positive than I ever would have imagined.”
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.
He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.