Are we about to see a pogrom against Christians in Turkey?

A woman kisses a candle at a church in Istanbul (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Our sharp-eyed editor, Luke Coppen, has discovered two stories on the Internet about Turkey, in the wake of its recent coup attempt, that are so astonishing that they demand some scrutiny and comment.

The first concerns Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric resident in the United States, whom the Turkish government claims, without any credible evidence anyone can see, was the mastermind behind the recent failed coup. According to a report in a Turkish newspaper, Mr Gulen, not simply content with being the main string puller from his lair in Pennsylvania, is nothing less than a secret Cardinal of the Catholic Church, appointed such, in petto, by Saint John Paul II back in 1998.

Needless to say, this is completely baseless. The Cardinals created in petto on that occasion were other men, and no Pope can or would appoint a Muslim a cardinal. But this sort of crazy conspiracy theory is much loved in a country like Turkey, where everyone believes in the “deep government” the people who really rule the country. The idea that they are in league with the Pope makes perfect sense if you are minded to believe in conspiracies.

But it gets worse. While the idea that Gulen is a secret Cardinal is simply ridiculous, and probably will not have an negative impact on Catholics in Turkey (or so we may hope), the other conspiracy theory, that the Patriarch of the Phanar was involved in the coup, is much more dangerous. Indeed, the spokesman for Patriarch Bartholomew has gone so far as to deny the allegations.

It is at this point that readers may well believe that there is a conspiracy afoot, and that is one masterminded by the Turkish government, using the coup attempt as an ideal opportunity to blacken the reputations of everyone they do not like. If Gulen can be portrayed as an agent of the Pope, that panders to Turkish nationalism and anti-Christian feeling, which is never far below the surface. If the Patriarch is seen as the agent of anti-Turkish forces, that makes his position even more precarious than it is at present. After all, it was only in 1955 that the Turkish government and its agents stirred up trouble against the Greek minority in Istanbul instituting a pogrom that led to the steep decline of the city’s Greek population, a decline that continues to this day.

The coup, and its aftermath, the counter-coup, have already led to thousands of arrests, and the purging of numerous civil servants, teachers and army personnel. Is it now going to lead to the religious and ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s already tiny Christian populations? Are Mr Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies about to lead to the unleashing of a new pogrom directed at the Christians of Turkey?