Thursday, November 02, 2006

Christians in Turkey

Compared to the situation in Syria, the situation in Turkey is much more difficult. Compared to a decade ago in Turkey, it is much better today. There does not seem to be any violence at the moment, at least not in the area we visited (south eastern Turkey, mainly the Tur Abdin region). There is even talk of a few Christian families returning, at least to spend the summers in their old country, and some such returning families have even invested in starting up wine-production again (Vineyards were often destroyed in the war with the PKK guerilla). The wine, my wine-drinking friends told me, was (still) terrible, but you have to admire their courage.

That said, in the land were Christianity once had its centre, there is very few Christians left. The genocides on the Armenians and Syrians in the beginning of the 20th century broke the back of the Christian presence in the country, and the few that survived had mostly emigrated, to Syria or western countries. Today Christian life is centred on the few monasteries that are still functioning (we visited two - Dayr al-Zaferan and Mor Gabriel).

At the moment, the most pressing problem seems to be the acute lack of priests. This is caused by Turkey's strict "secular" policy towards education. The problem is delicate: no private schooling of any kind is allowed, and people educated abroad are not allowed to function as religious leaders. While this policy in actuality functions as a way to keep the rather large Islamic fundamentalist population in order (there are no Quran-school's allowed either), it is the Christians that are suffering the most. While the are Muslim theological faculties run by the state, where Muslim leaders are educated (in a fashion that is acceptable to military, who de facto is running turkey), there is no way to educate Christian leaders at all. This means that at the moment one old priest has to look after several parishes. If one has to find anything positive in this situation it has lead to some rather daring ecumenical steps being taken. In Mardin, for example, there are a few families of several Christian denominations present. The single Syrian-Orthodox priest tends to them all, and he will celebrate a liturgy in one of the churches each Sunday. The liturgy is the same, but the building may be Greek-catholic, Armenian or even Presbyterian. As one priest noted: "this is a different kind of ecumenism: this is called survival." When you're the last family in your church, niceties about Christology suddenly seems less relevant.

For the same reason in mentioned in my post on Syria, money does not seem to be a huge problem, at least judging from the amount of brand new buildings we could see in the old monasteries. These monasteries do not function as we are used to in the west - we actually saw very few monks in them. But they are sights of pilgrimage and places were the Syrians can go to learn more about their tradition. It seems there is a lot of visitors coming, and the newer buildings reflect this - a huge bookshop and a nice cafeteria. But of course those that come are more interested in the fourth century churches still in daily use, or the resting places of famous saints (12.000 in Mor Gabriel only, according to the young man who showed us around.)

Is there hope for Christianity in Turkey? Most look to the European Union for such signs. It is plain to see to anyone visiting Turkey how desperate the country is to be allowed to enter the Union. Obviously religious freedom is central to the "values" of the European Union. But in the negotiations that are currently proposed the question has received low priority. The reason is the same as I already mentioned. Religions freedom in Turkey is not only freedom for the fraction of the population that is Christian, but also for the far greater portion that is made out of conservative Muslims. This is not something EU wants to mess with.

But still one can hope for the best.


Shane Clifton said...

Thank you for this post Patrik - thoroughly enjoyed this little insight into a land about which i know very little. It is an interesting thought that religious freedom might actually create more problems than it solves. One can certainly understand that the last thing a country wants is more fundamentalists - be they Christian or Muslim.

Griffin said...

Very worthwhile piece of writing, thank you for this article.
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