To begin with, an interesting story about the doings of an American congressional committee, which I cannot imagine (given the head of steam building up among our own legislators in favour of Turkey’s admission to the EU) taking place in any committee room of the Westminster Parliament:
WASHINGTON (AFP) – A US congressional committee on Wednesday urged Turkey to ensure religious freedom and return church properties to their “rightful owners” in a vote opposed by the Ankara government.
After a spirited debate, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a text that says Turkey should “end all forms of religious discrimination” and “return to their rightful owners” all churches and other Christian historic sites.
“Religious minorities are under grave threat in today’s Turkey,” said Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California.
“Rather than enjoying protection, very vulnerable religious minority groups including the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church are denied full legal status,” he said.
Turkey in 1971 closed a major seminary of the Orthodox Church, which has been seated in Istanbul since Byzantine times, as the secular state tried to bring universities under its control.
Turkey does not recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I’s title as head of Orthodox Christians and considers him only the spiritual head of Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox minority.
Some readers may remember a piece I wrote in February, about legal attempts then under way (and still, so far as I can discover, unresolved) to seize the land surrounding the Syro-Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel (necessary for the community’s continued existence) amid claims that the monastery itself was built on land on which there had once been a mosque, a ludicrous contention since the monastery itself actually predates Islam. This attempt is being supported by the pro-Islamic ruling party of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The point is that this case is not unique: it is simply one more example of what appears to be a mounting Islamist-inspired anti-Christian campaign, which the Turkish government, despite its ambitions to join the EU, is doing nothing to discourage. Consider a story reported by Zenit in December 2009:
Three Muslims entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Reverend Yusuf Akbulut, according to a Dec. 15 report by Compass Direct News, an agency specializing in reporting on religious persecution.
They told the priest that that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him. The Muslims were apparently acting in reaction to the recent referendum in Switzerland, which banned the construction of new minarets for mosques.
According to the report Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey.
There is little doubt that the Turkish government’s anti-Christian policies have a good deal of popular support: this is, quite simply, an anti-Christian culture (and therefore incompatible, I would argue, with the European culture it claims to want to be part of). About the same time as the incident at Meryem Ana, a survey showed that more than half of the population of Turkey opposes members of other religions being allowed to hold meetings or to publish materials explaining their faith. The survey also found that almost 40 per cent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians.
This is a problem with a long and violent history, which has in no way moderated in recent decades: ponder for a moment the state-sponsored and state-orchestrated Istanbul pogrom of September 1955, which was directed primarily at Istanbul’s Greek minority.
The riots were orchestrated by the Turkish military’s Tactical Mobilization Group, the seat of Operation Gladio’s Turkish branch; the Counter-Guerrilla. The events were triggered by the news that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, north Greece – the house where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881 – had been bombed the day before. A bomb planted by a Turkish usher of the consulate, who was later arrested and confessed, incited the events. The Turkish press conveying the news in Turkey was silent about the arrest and instead insinuated that Greeks had set off the bomb.
A Turkish mob, most of which had been trucked into the city in advance, assaulted Istanbul’s Greek community for nine hours. Although the mob did not explicitly call for Greeks to be killed, over a dozen people died during or after the pogrom as a result of beatings and arson. Jews, Armenians and Muslims were also harmed.
The pogrom accelerated the dramatic decline already taking place in the ethnic Greek population in Turkey, and particularly in Istanbul. In 1927, the Greek population of Turkey was 119,822; the official Turkish figures for 2008 were 3,000–4,000, though according to Human Rights Watch, the Greek population in Turkey was estimated at 2,500 in 2006. All this has had, of course, a huge effect on the Christian cause in Turkey itself, and puts the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in an almost impossibly difficult position. Turkey requires by law that the Ecumenical Patriarch must be an ethnic Greek by birth (and just what kind of country is it that has laws like that?), holding Turkish citizenship, despite the expulsion of most the Greek population. There have also been expropriations of church property by the state, which closed down the Orthodox Theological School of Halki in 1971; appeals against this from the United States, the European Union and various NGOs have been simply ignored. The Turkish government (unlike the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, the Pope, and indeed most of Christendom) refuses to recognise the Ecumenical Patriarch as the titular head of worldwide Orthodoxy, and simply insists (as though it was any business of theirs) that he is no more than the head of Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians in Turkey.
I could go on and on. The point about all this (one point about it at least, there are of course many) is that despite the Turkish government’s claim to be addressing its appalling human rights record in response to EU demands, the one thing it isn’t doing is to clean up its attitude to the Christian minority in Turkey. And the EU doesn’t even seem to be interested. I wonder why that is? Do you suppose they have a sneaking sympathy with the Turks?