WORLD

Fearing a new holy empire

Just when Turks are worried about Christians, here comes the Pope

ADNAN R. KHAN December 4 2006
WORLD

Fearing a new holy empire

Just when Turks are worried about Christians, here comes the Pope

ADNAN R. KHAN December 4 2006

Fearing a new holy empire

WORLD

Just when Turks are worried about Christians, here comes the Pope

ADNAN R. KHAN

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Ankara on Nov. 28, few people expect he’ll be given a warm welcome. In the aftermath of comments the pontiff made on Sept. 12, quoting a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman,” suspicions over the planned visit to Turkey have intensified. Why now, many Turks are asking, at a time when Turkey’s relations with Europe are tense, and some observers are even forecasting the suspension of part of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations when EU leaders meet next month.

In Europe, opposition to Turkey ever joining the EU is increasing. Benedict, when he was still a cardinal, was part of that club: in 2004, just months before being elected pope, he stated that Turkey “is founded upon Islam” and “thus the entry of Turkey into the EU would be anti-historical.” That assessment is still fresh in the minds of Turks, as is the steady stream of reform demands from EU member nations, not to mention France’s General Assembly recently passing a provocative bill outlawing the denial of the Armenian genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during the First World War. That bill, more a message to Turkey’s government than a legitimate addition to France’s legal code, is unlikely to be passed by the French Senate, but it is still a bitter pill to swallow for Turks, who have been busy trying to meet EU requirements before the leaders’ meeting in December. In fact, in protest against the legislation, Turkey cut military ties to France.

But even as Turks grow increasingly embittered with the message from Europe that they are not welcome, many are also concerned about the pressures their society is facing from westernization. “The flow of cultural values has been moving west to east for decades,” says Berdal Aral, a professor in the international relations department of Fatih University, Istanbul’s most conservative postsecondary institution. For many conservative Turks, the Pope’s visit falls into a disturbing pattern of Christianization sweeping their nation. “They want to transform us into a Christian country,” says Muhiddin Sanarslan, a 30-year-old Muslim living in the conservative Fatih district of Istanbul. “That’s the only way they will accept us. Well, forget it then. That will not happen.”

‘YOU HAVE TO BE BRAVE TO BE CHRISTIAN IN THIS SOCIETY. A CONVERT WILL LOSE HIS JOB.’

But it is happening, if not literally then certainly in terms of culture and iconography. In Istanbul, traditionally an intersection of East and West, the West has, for some time now, had the green light. From Sunday holidays to Santa Claus, symbols of Christian tradition are gaining ground. More tangibly, figures published in January 2004 in Turkey’s mainstream Milliyet newspaper claimed that 35,000 Muslims, the vast majority of them in Istanbul, had converted to Christianity in 2003. While impossible to confirm (the Turkish government does not release these figures), the rate of conversion, according to Christian leaders in Turkey, is on the rise.

“Conversion is a very sensitive topic,” says Behnan Konutgan, project coordinator for Bible translation at the Bible Society in Turkey. “The Milliyet figure sounds too high to me, but this is something no one in the Christian community wants to talk about.” As an evangelical, Konutgan admits that speaking about his beliefs is part of his mission, though he shies away from calling it proselytization.

Konutgan and his Bible Society have no illusions about the dangers of working in a country where 99.8 per cent of the population is Muslim and a growing number of those Muslims are hostile to his activities (in a recent case, a 16-year-old boy from the conservative eastern Anatolian city of Trabzon received 19 years in prison for the murder of a Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, in the midst of the Danish cartoon crisis). His office, located near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, employs security precautions comparable to those of any diplomatic mission. The locked gate leads to a guardhouse where visitors must produce some form of identity and confirm they are expected before being handed a visitor’s card. Inside the complex, finding the society and the attached “prayer house” is an intuitive venture—both are located behind an unmarked door.

“You have to be a brave person to be Christian in this society,” says Konutgan. “A Christian convert will likely lose his job, his friends, his family. He will no longer be considered a Turk.” To ease the pressures on Christians, the outspoken pastor says his community is “desperate” for Turkey to join the EU. Some key reforms to Turkey’s existing laws would benefit minority groups like his, including a recent, controversial amendment to property laws, demanded by the EU, that would allow religious foundations to own property. That, says Konutgan, could allow Christian groups to reclaim property appropriated by the Turkish republic. “We’ve gone to the European court to get our properties back,” he adds. “We won the case and Turkey changed some laws, but we’re still waiting for our land.”

But the Christian community’s opponents argue that giving Christians property rights would lead to a Christian “reoccupation” of Turkey. “They will end up owning half our land,” says 64-year-old Ali Shahin, a retired religious studies teacher who opposes any concessions to Christians for the sake of EU membership. “The Vatican will then send money here to build churches. It is a new form of colonization. This Pope is a dangerous man: he wants to create a new Christian empire.”

Pope Benedict’s visit, officially described as an attempt to heal the 952-year-old schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, is being interpreted by Istanbul’s conservative Muslims as an extension of the Vatican’s push to confront Islam. “Istanbul,” says Father Felice at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, “is one of the most holy cities in Christiandom. If Rome is one lung of the Christians, then Istanbul is the other, and Pope Benedict is attempting to reunite the two.” For Orthodox Christians, a powerful denomination with deep-rooted influence over much of Eastern Europe and Greece, Istanbul, or Constantinople as many of them still call it, is their Rome. It is also the link to the West for the few remaining Christians in other parts of the Middle East, the majority of whom are Orthodox.

THIS POPE IS A DANGEROUS MAN. HE IS TRYING TO FORM A UNITED FRONT AGAINST ISLAM.’

The underlying implications of Pope Benedict’s visit don’t sit well with even moderate Muslims. “This Pope is extremely dangerous for Islam,” says professor Aral, echoing Ali Shahin’s sentiments. “He is trying to form a united front against Islam. This is the perception of many Muslims in Turkey.” But, unlike the more radical Shahin, the problem for moderates like him, he says, is not theological or even confrontational. It is a question of identity. “Anatolian Islam has always been moderate. But in recent years we’re seeing a crystallization of religious and secular identities in Turkey.” The result is a rise in radicalism, with a parallel rise in secularism.

Both forces feed off each other in a dynamic city like Istanbul. As more and more Turks express their “Europeanness,” openly ignoring traditional religious responsibilities like fasting during Ramadan, which they see as vestiges of a retrogressive past, more Islamists turn to a more radical version of their faith, concerned with the corruption of their society and reacting to it with more fervour. Members of this latter group, says Konutgan, now feel they can have a purely Islamic identity that has nothing to do with the West.

The Pope’s visit and the reform of Turkish society over the course of the EU accession bid could potentially widen the rift between these two groups. But this is a natural process, argues Ayhan Kaya, director of the Centre for European Studies at Istanbul Bilgi University. “We’re still at the early stages ofTurkey’s encounter with Europe. The problem right now is that certain groups with vested interests are taking advantage of certain perceptions in Turkish society.” As Turkey enters another electoral cycle, with a presidential election slated for May 2007 and parliamentary elections six months later, the typical partisan campaign process has begun. “Political parties and reactionary groups are using the hot issues,” he adds, “like property rights for Christians and conversions, to promote their own interests.” Kaya is optimistic that this phase will end once the elections are over.

Others are not. “The only thing that will change the attitude of Turkey’s Muslims toward its Christians,” says Konutgan, “is if we take all of the school textbooks that teach Muslim kids to hate Christians and burn them.” The same, radical Muslims would argue, could be said about the current Pope, who has been regularly accused of sowing hatred between the religions. Books and popes aside though, the future of interfaith relations in Turkey seems set for more controversy than reconciliation. M