Saturday, 27 December 2014

Pope’s Turkey visit fails to help religious minorities as Turkish parents told to avoid ‘infidel propaganda’ at Christmas

Pope Francis embraces Patriarch Bartholomew during his recent visit to Istanbul

The Ottoman Empire is often cited as being ahead of its time for its tolerance of a multi-faith, multi-cultural society. For 600 years, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peacefully side-by-side, each able to practice their faiths openly.

At the height of their power in the sixteenth century, the Ottomans controlled southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Although the rulers were Muslims, they adopted a pragmatic approach to governing their diverse territories and subjects deploying the millet system, which respected the different languages, religions and traditions.

Decline in religious minorities in Turkey 
While all remaining citizens were absorbed into what is now modern-day Turkey when the Republic was established in 1923, a steady growth in national Turkish identity has come at the expense of the country’s minority groups and multi-cultural heritage.

The recent three-day papacy visit to Turkey last month put the spotlight back on its religious minorities. Today only 120,000 – a fraction of the country’s 78 million mainly Muslim population – are Christians, these comprising of a mixture of Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Franco-Levantines, Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans. Turkey’s Jewish community also continues to dwindle, down to a mere 15,000 people, compared to 80,000 before the state of Israel in 1948.

Although the country’s Christian flock remains small, Turkey remains important to the Vatican for its geo-strategic location and regional influence. Three of the previous four Popes have visited the country in the past fifty years: Benedict in 2006, John Paul II in 1979 and Paul VI in 1967.

Pope Francis in Turkey
Pope Francis travelled to Turkey on 28th November, where he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Grand Müftü of Istanbul Rahmi Yaran, Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, and Turkey’s Chief Rabbi Hakham Bashi. The Pope used his visit to raise the plight of Christians in the Middle East and to promote inter-faith dialogue.

In a speech in Ankara on his first day, the genteel Pope, standing next to the Turkish President, said such a dialogue could "deepen the understanding and appreciation of the many things which we hold in common".

He also spoke about the Middle East, saying that "for too long [it has] been a theatre of fratricidal wars".

The following day, the Pope took part in a joint prayer service with Bartholomew. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been split since 1054 over differences on the primacy of the papacy. In the past, patriarchs were expected to kiss the pope’s feet. On this occasion, at the end of the service Francis bowed to Bartholomew and asked for his blessing, the papal deference to an Orthodox patriarch underlining Francis' desire to end the schism between the two Churches.
Istanbul's Grand Müftü Rahmi Yaran in prayer
with the Pope at the Blue Mosque
Later that day, the 77-year-old pontiff took part in a Muslim prayer at the spectacular Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet cami) alongside the Grand Müftü of Istanbul to show respect for Islam and encourage stronger ties between the two faiths. Facing east towards Mecca, Francis stood with his head bowed and hands clasped in front of him in a short silent prayer, at the end of which Yaran told Francis, "May God accept it."

The Pope then visited Istanbul’s other great religious landmark, the Hagia Sofia, which faces the Blue Mosque. For almost 1,000 years, this was the most important Orthodox cathedral in Christendom, before being converted into a mosque under the Ottomans. It is currently a museum.

While generating widespread local coverage, the Pope’s visit and message of interfaith respect has failed to make much of a mark on mainstream Turkish society. In the run-up to Christmas, Bartın, a Black Sea coastal city hit the headlines following an SMS message sent by its provincial education director to head teachers telling them not to allow their children to fall prey to ‘infidel propaganda’.

Turkish official asks teachers & parents to save children from ‘infidel propaganda’ this Christmas
The message from Yaşar Demir described Turkey as “99 percent Muslim,” and condemned Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations as “incompatible with the traditions and customs of the people of Anatolia”. He appealed to head teachers to “save” their nursery and primary school children from “New Year’s Eve celebrations [that] are Christian propaganda”, concluding with, “I thank you in advance for showing national sensitivity and not letting the subconscious of your children be occupied by such Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations.”

The controversial message contrasts sharply with the aspirations of those in Turkey’s travel sector keen to leverage the Pope’s visit to increase faith-based tourism. The country is home to many sacred sites, including the House of the Virgin in Ephesus (the last known place of residence for Mary, mother of Jesus) and the Church of St. Nicholas in Myra (Demre), which contains the tomb of the saint, today more commonly known as Santa Claus.

Statue in Demre, Turkey, close to where
St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) is buried
According to a recent report by the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB), the country hit a 10-year low last year when only 59,000 faith tourists visited, compared to 144,000 in 2007. TÜRSAB Vice-President Hande Arslanalp claimed there were multiple reasons for the drop, primarily the ongoing conflict in the region. She told reporters that Pope Francis’ tour of Turkey could stimulate a rise in faith tourists, just as his predecessor Benedict’s trip had done eight years earlier.

Separately a prominent businessman complained about the lack of a “New Year’s Eve spirit” in the key tourism city of Antalya, in southern Turkey. Speaking at the weekly meeting of the Antalya Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (ANSİAD) a few weeks ago, Fettah Tamince, the owner of the Rixos hotel chain, said: “Have you seen any ornamentation [in Antalya for the New Year celebrations]? Did you feel a festive atmosphere? Yes, we are not Christians, but we are [living in] a touristic city.”

Others, including Fikret Çağlan, the head of the Antalya Kaleiçi Culture and Life Association, and Konyaaltı District Mayor Muhittin Böcek, concur with Tamince’s complaints.

Böcek told Turkish daily Hürriyet that “It is not acceptable to say that New Year’s Eve celebrations should not take place in Muslim countries. We hold religious and state issues separate.”

His administration, a central district within Antalya, was preparing for New Year’s Eve by decorating its streets and trees.

Rise in religious conservatism creating climate of fear for Turkey’s religious minorities
Antalya City Council came under the control of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) following local elections earlier this year. The party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has observed an increasingly conservative Sunni Islamic path in recent years, which have angered and alienated the country’s secular Muslims, along with religious and ethnic minorities.

One community in fear of the turning tide are Turkey’s Jews. Their ancestors sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and for over 500 years they thrived as merchants and traders, with some rising to become advisors to the Sultan.

The Neve Shalom Synagogue was once the hub of Istanbul’s lively Jewish neighbourhood. Today, it remains barely noticeable as it seeks to blend into its surroundings. Armed security guards are deployed to protect the site, while members of this tiny community are now advised to keep a low profile. 

Many believe the increase in hostility they have faced over the past decade is due to a rise of religious conservatism and the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, the latter providing a regular channel for nationalist conservative Turks to vent their hatred of Jews.

Anti-semitism on the rise in Turkey. This from a rally in 2010
During the last Gaza assault by Israel over the summer, some 27,000 Turkish twitter users posted messages supporting Hitler’s genocide against the Jews. But it’s not just members of fringe groups circulating messages of hate, pop stars such as Yıldız Tilbe and even deputies from the ruling AKP are at it. In one tweet, MP Samil Tayyar said, "May your race vanish and may you always have your Hitler." Many observed the lack of disciplinary action against the MP and a failure from his party to distance itself from the inflammatory language.

In response, Say Stop to Racism, an NGO in Turkey, said: “Racist propaganda has reached the point of asking Jewish citizens of the Republic of Turkey to leave the country, threats against synagogues by some anti-Semitic circles and the silence of public officials on such threats [which] are not compatible with the rule of law.”

Indeed anti-semitism has become so endemic in Turkey that in September President Obama asked his counterpart Erdoğan to take measures to counter it.

Turkey’s other minority groups, including Armenians and Greeks, have also raised their concerns at the growing intolerace in Turkey, where verbal and physical attacks are now common place. In an interview with the BBC, Fotis Benlisoy, one of the few Greeks of Turkey, said: "The threatening feeling for non-Muslim minorities here is coming again.

"There are many reasons: language and policies of the government, the president and prime minister using more conservative references to Sunni identity, pejorative words for non-Muslim communities coming from members of the cabinet, so much circulating about Turkey's relations with Isis [the Islamic State militant group based in Syria and Iraq] – all of this is making us think we might need an escape strategy."

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