Which way will Turkey turn?

Soldiers carry a large poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

The Pope’s visit to Turkey tomorrow will be the most significant foreign trip he’s made to date, and it comes at a time when Christians are increasingly nervous. 

Francis has gone to majority-Muslim countries in the past, but Turkey is Islamic in a way that Albania isn’t. It is also – with the exception of Israel – the most important military power in the Middle East, and at a geographic crossroads, with the European Union on one side and ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria on the other.

It seems to be at a crossroads in time, too, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doing much to reverse the reforms of the Turkish republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Just a couple of months ago he reversed the ban on women wearing the headscarf in universities; personally I’m in favour of women being free to wear whatever they like, but I can see why Turkish women adopting headscarves is a bad sign. It’s also a rule of thumb that the more covered-up women in Muslim countries, the worse things are for the Christians. As the BBC reported:

Catholics, the smallest Christian minority in Turkey, have felt the impact.

A spate of murders of Catholic missionaries and priests a few years ago left the community in shock. At the Catholic basilica in Istanbul, there is Mass for the few.

‘To be a Turk now means you have to be Muslim,’ says Fr Iulian Pista, who serves here.

‘In the past, being a pious Muslim was looked down upon. Now Friday prayers are encouraged. Society here is becoming Islamised. Recently, I’ve seen youngsters defecate and urinate in my church. They shout “Allahu akbar” [English: God is great]. I also believe God is great but the way they say it is threatening.’


The president has also said some pretty odd things, alarming for the leader of a Nato country. He recently stated that Islamic countries have only ever fought wars of defence, not of conquest, which might have come as a surprise to visitors to the Hagia Sophia. The president also made the claim that Muslims discovered America before Columbus, a prime example of internet-era junk history (and besides, as me granny told me, it was discovered by St Brendan in a stone boat long before). There is also the issue of censorship, claims that Erdogan disregards the rule of law, and the enormous palace he’s just finished, which hardly screams “republican virtue” – it will be interesting to see his choice of wall art.

Turkey Republic Day

Perhaps I’m not a fair critic, as I have a great admiration for Atatürk and what he and the Turks achieved in secularising a very Islamic country; by most accounts Erdogan’s government has treated the country’s Christian minority well, handing over confiscated convents that its (essentially anti-religious) secularist nationalist predecessors refused to.

But Erdogan is riding a wave of Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey, a harking back for that golden age of Islamic power. Curiously Ottstalgia is not confined to that country, but exists in the west too, but for different reasons; the recent Rageh Omaar BBC series Europe’s Muslim Emperors presented it as essentially a diverse, benevolent and peaceful society that sadly succumbed to the bogeyman of nationalism. In Britain Ottstalgia is a response to recent immigration and the need to find a historical example of a peaceful multicultural state with Muslims in it. The reality of Ottoman rule was very different, of course, but just as nationalists have their imagined communities, so do their polar opposites, multiculturalists.

When the Ottoman Empire ended the Christians were mostly killed or driven out of what is Turkey, most notoriously was the Armenian genocide in 1915, but there was also mass murder against Greeks and Syriac, and as many as a million Greek-speakers forced out (in return for roughly 500,000 Turks going the other way).

Today once again Turkey is becoming more multi-ethnic thanks in part to the various crises on its border; the country is home to an estimated 1.6m Syrians, an incredible burden that the Turks have shouldered with characteristic generosity. It’s likely that the Pope will meet some this week and will do his best to help the victims of war, just like his predecessor Benedict XVI. But his visit, as Radio Vatican reports, will also come as a huge boost to the country’s small Catholic community.