(Dear Readers, after having raised some controversy regarding Islam, I am glad that I can report some positive news, before I change the topic.)
Turkey, with 98% of its population Muslim, is the only Muslim country without a state religion. The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey guarantees religious freedom. The population includes members of the Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches, Roman and Eastern Catholics, and Jews. Today, approximately 120,000 Christians and 26,000 Jews live in Turkey, out of 73 million of the total population.
Despite the right of religious freedom, Christian minorities are still subjected to harassment and even violent attacks. Not only were Catholic priests, and recently a bishop, killed by individuals, but the government also confiscated the properties of Roman Catholics.
Also, Orthodox Christians have to endure discrimination by the government. The Armenian Patriarch, head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, lacks the status of legal personality and there is no seminary in Turkey to educate its clerics since the last remaining seminary was closed by the state. As with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Armenian Patriarchate experiences direct Turkish government interference in the selection of its religious leadership, and the Turkish state also prevents the Armenian Orthodox community, which the State Department estimates at 65,000, from operating an independent seminary.
Recently, though, the Turkish government made several signs of willingness to improve the situation of Christians in this country. As an example, consider the ancient monastery Sumela, founded in the year 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375- 395), which became Turkish after the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1930, the miraculous icon of the Panagia Soumelá, as well as other sacred treasures of the monastery, were transferred to the new Panagia Soumela Monastery, on the slopes of Mount Vermion, near the town of Naousa, in Macedonia, Greece. Since then, it has been forbidden to celebrate the liturgy there. The monastery, a small portion of which has been restored, has become a destination for tourist excursions. On the Day of Assumption (15th. August) this year, which is for the Orthodox Christians the Feast of Dormition (the “falling asleep” of the Theotokos), the first Mass in the past 88 years was celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew I at this monastery.
Again, on the 19th. Aug. the Turkish government made a similar concession for the Armenians. It authorized the celebration of a liturgy in the Church of the Holy Cross in Akhtamar, on an island of Lake Van. Sandro Magister reported:
This church, which had also fallen into ruin, was renovated in 2007. But it was set up as a museum, and until now the liturgy has not been permitted to be celebrated there.
When the Armenian patriarch asked for permission to place a cross on top of the renovated church, the Turkish authorities refused. The church had to remain without a cross, without bells, without sacred markings, without pastors, and without faithful. Instead, the ceremony for the conclusion of the renovations prominently featured images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.
The liturgies at Sumela and Akhtamar on August 15 and 19 will be attended by a few thousand faithful, many of them from abroad: an unusual number for Turkey, a cradle of the early Christianity propagated by Paul and for centuries a land of flourishing Christianity, but where today the Churches – or the little of them that remains – don’t even have legal recognition.
Moreover, last August 5 two churches dating back to the fourth and sixth centuries in the village of Yemisli in the region of Mardin in southeastern Anatolia were reopened for worship. The buildings were renovated by seventy-two families of the Syriac Orthodox community, which numbers about five thousand faithful in Turkey.
The concessions made this August by the government of Ankara are being interpreted as a move on the chessboard of Turkey’s problematic entry into the European Union, which is impossible without minimal standards concerning religious freedom.
And just a few days ago, it was reported that a top Turkish religious official said that the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus should be reopened.
“We feel disturbed when we hear that a minaret has been banned in Europe. We should be protecting freedom of religion for different religions in our own territory. If we only approach religions from a security perspective, we will be unable to work this out,” Ali Bardakoğlu, who holds the current Presidency of Religious Affairs was reported as saying.
As recorded in the New Testament, Paul was originally from Tarsus. The Saint Paul’s church in Tarsus, which appears on the UN World Heritage list, was used for liturgy up until the 20th century. It is located in the Cami-i Nur District. Now it is a museum.
It was confiscated by the Turkish government in 1943 for use as a state museum. It is currently also used under a government license for regular services by fee-paying Christian visitors. CiNews from Ireland reported:
Turkey’s 32,000-member Catholic Church asked Prime Minister Erdogan to permanently return the building, which was a focus for Christian culture until the regime of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.
Bishop Padovese said he believed the Turkish government is now ready to classify Tarsus as a Christian pilgrimage site, but he said European Christians must continue demanding a permanent solution.
He said: ‘A certain amount of public pressure is helpful, but only if it originates from love for Turkey and a genuine wish for religious freedom to grow in the country’.
So, whatever the motives or political calculations might have been behind these decisions, they are at least positive signs for the whole Christendom.
Hagia Sophia could host religious ceremonies, top Turkish official says
from Turkey Daily News 27th. Aug. 2010
Brushing aside fears that holding religious ceremonies in churches would undermine Turkey’s Islamic character, the country’s top religious official has expressed openness about allowing such rites in Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia.
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