|Pope Francis embraces Patriarch Bartholomew during his recent visit to Istanbul|
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
While all remaining citizens were absorbed into what is now modern-day
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. Turkey
The recent three-day papacy visit to
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,
important to the
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. Vatican
Pope Francis in
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 ’s Chief Rabbi Hakham Bashi.
The Pope used his visit to raise the plight of Christians in the Turkey Middle East and to promote inter-faith dialogue.
In a speech in
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". Ankara
He also spoke about the
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.
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
’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. Istanbul
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
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 Turkey Ephesus (the last known place of
residence for Mary, mother of Jesus) and the Church
of in St.
(Demre), which contains the tomb of the saint, today more commonly known as
Santa Claus. Myra
|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
could stimulate a rise in faith tourists, just as his predecessor Benedict’s trip
had done eight years earlier. Turkey
Separately a prominent businessman complained about the lack of a “New Year’s Eve spirit” in the key tourism city of
Antalya, in southern .
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 Turkey for
the New Year celebrations]? Did you feel a festive atmosphere? Yes, we are not
Christians, but we are [living in] a touristic city.” Antalya
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
, was preparing
for New Year’s Eve by decorating its streets and trees. Antalya
Rise in religious conservatism creating climate of fear for
’s religious minorities Turkey
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
Jews. Their ancestors sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion
in 1492, and for over 500 years they thrived as merchants and traders, with
some rising to become advisors to the Sultan. Spain
The Neve Shalom Synagogue was once the hub of
’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. Istanbul
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
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. Israel
In response, Say Stop to Racism, an NGO in
Turkey, said: “Racist propaganda has reached the point of asking Jewish citizens of
the 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.” Republic of Turkey
Indeed anti-semitism has become so endemic in
September President Obama asked his counterpart Erdoğan to take measures to
counter it. Turkey
"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."