Opinion & Features

The anxious world of Turkey’s Catholics

Fr Andrea Santoro’s funeral takes place in the church where he was shot dead (AP)

In 2010, the Austrian politician Ewald Stadler delivered a rousing speech from the floor of the National Council in Vienna. For more than eight minutes, he harangued the Turkish ambassador, who was present in the chamber, for complaining about the treatment of Turks in Austria. Listing ignored crimes against Catholic clergy in the ambassador’s homeland – the kind of crimes Austrian imams don’t face – Stadler pulled back the veil of hypocrisy that covers any discussion of anti-Christian violence.

The July 15 coup attempt in Turkey was another reminder of the danger that Christians face in that country. As the chaos raged in Ankara and other major cities, several churches were vandalised. They included a Protestant church in Malatya, the same eastern Turkish city where Muslim attackers stormed the offices of a Bible publisher in 2007, torturing and murdering three Christian employees.

In Trabzon, a northeastern city nestled along the coast of the Black Sea, the Santa Maria Catholic church had its windows broken. This site, too, was symbolic for the country’s Christians. In 2006, Fr Andrea Santoro, a priest at Santa Maria, was shot dead in the back as he knelt for prayer.

As Turkey’s population is 99.8 per cent Sunni Muslim, Christians are a vanishingly small minority. Estimates of Catholics vary but usually fall between 25,000 and 40,000 – in a country of 75 million.

Violence against Christians in Turkey may not be endemic, as it is in other Muslim-majority countries. But the periodic glimpses we get are every bit as horrific. One of the crimes mentioned by Stadler, for instance, was the gruesome murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese in 2010. The apostolic vicar of Anatolia was stabbed more than two dozen times and decapitated outside his home in İskenderun. The culprit was the bishop’s driver, a young Muslim man.

All these incidents prove that vile hatred lurks not far beneath the surface. It will only worsen if Turkey further embraces political Islam.

When Pope Francis visited Turkey in 2014, he called for greater tolerance and acceptance of Christians. There is little indication this will happen. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems committed to Islam as the guide for his country’s politics. Once thought of as a moderate, Erdoğan is now a symbol of Turkey’s rejection of its secular legacy.

Most of the time, Christians have managed to avoid too much trouble. Bishop Rubén Tierrablanca Gonzalez, the Mexican-born apostolic vicar of Istanbul, believes that Turkish Catholics have ensured their relative safety by staying out of the country’s internal politics.

“All the current difficulties are linked to political events, and we don’t touch such issues or take part in demonstrations,” he told the Catholic News Service after the July 15 coup. “Thanks to this, our Church’s members are safe.” Still, as Turkish political culture becomes more overtly Islamic, even keeping to the sidelines is no insurance against persecution.

The history of modern Turkey is a tale of tension between the secular and the religious. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was formed from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. Led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an ardent secularist, the country adopted comprehensive reforms that Westernised everything from the script of the Turkish language to the kinds of hats people could wear.

Many Turks believe that this secular nationalism has been sustained by the derin devlet, or “deep state”: a kind of shadow government. The theory is that an entrenched network of powerful people in Turkey have served as the guardians of Kemalism, using the army to intervene in government affairs as necessary.

The latest coup attempt has strained relations between the United States and Turkey. There are Turkish politicians who openly say that America was behind the operation. And as one Istanbul-based journalist has recently noted, many Turks on the street believe this too.

It doesn’t help that Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric wanted by Erdoğan for alleged involvement in the coup, lives in Pennsylvania. Nor does it help that he has links to an ex-CIA hand named Graham Fuller, who vouched for Gülen in his bid for permanent residency in the US.

These facts have bred paranoia and conspiracism – two of Erdoğan’s specialties. If US-Turkish relations erode further, those toxic tendencies will get worse. Erdoğan is already cracking down on everyone from police officers and judges to university professors. In the long run, how will Christians fare in such a climate?

According to Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, the apostolic vicar of Anatolia, the “weapon of dialogue” is the prudent choice for Christians. Of course, diplomacy is always the most desirable option, but it isn’t always the most realistic one. It takes two to have a dialogue; if the state of their religion in the Middle East is any indication, Christians have been talking to themselves for a long time.