VISIT 'A GREAT BOOST' FOR MARGINALISED CHRISTIANS

The Irish Times
November 30, 2006 Thursday

TURKEY: Patsy McGarry meets an Irish priest in Istanbul who will
concelebrate Mass with the pope

Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey will help bring about "renewed respect"
between Muslims and Christians, Irish Dominican priest Fr Paul Lawlor
said in Istanbul yesterday.

Fr Lawlor, who will concelebrate Mass with the pope in the Cathedral
of the Holy Spirit tomorrow, has been based in the Turkish metropolis
since November last year.

A native of Tralee, Co Kerry, he served with the Dominicans in Tehran
from 1974 until all foreign clergy were expelled in 1980.

The pope's visit, he said, would also be "a great boost for Christians
of this area of Turkey, who could feel marginalised".

He pointed out that the Catholic Church was not recognised in Turkey,
which created ownership problems when it came to property and meant
Catholic clergy could not wear clerical dress in public.

Other Christian churches, such as the Armenian and Orthodox churches,
were recognised and so could wear clerical dress, for instance, but
recognition also meant coming under the state's religious affairs
directorate, which maintained tight control over all recognised
religions in Turkey.

However, the other churches had other problems too in that, for
instance, all Orthodox seminaries had been closed by the state some
decades ago.

In theory there was complete religious freedom in Turkey, he said,
and it was true that a Muslim there who converted to Christianity
was not made to suffer repercussions, unlike the case in Iran, for
instance, where such a person could face execution.

But Muslims in Turkey had become "very defensive and sensitive" where
their religion was concerned and feared the rise of Islamophobia in
the West. Particular areas of Istanbul had become strongly Islamic
in culture and were places where Christians would feel "very excluded".

On the other hand, there were Christians among the Greek Orthodox
and Armenians who did not consider themselves Turkish and would not
allow any part of their liturgy to be in Turkish, he said.

There are an estimated 100,000-plus Christians in Turkey and Istanbul,
approximately 32,000 of whom are Roman Catholic. "The Christian
community is very scattered into so many little groups," Fr Lawlor
said. Among them are Chaldeans, Armenians, Greek and Turk Orthodox.

All had felt some repercussions since the Muhammad cartoons controversy
last year and again following the pope's Regensburg address last
September, he said. Both had generated "resentment" towards Christians
in Turkey.

That Regensburg address may also have been the reason why a meeting
by President Mohammad Khatami of Iran with the pope was cancelled by
Iran's supreme leader, he felt. Fr Lawlor was to accompany Mr Khatami
on the visit, as he speaks Farsi.

A newer group of Christians in Istanbul were the "thousands" of
Chaldeans who had fled Baghdad and Mosul since the war began in Iraq.

Some of their priests had been killed and their churches bombed. Fr
Lawlor described their situation as "tragic", with parents accompanying
children to schools set up by the Catholic charity Caritas in Istanbul
"because their houses are so cold and they cannot heat them".

He and other priests in the Dominican community say Mass for them,
at least part of which is in Aramaic.

In their own Church of St Peter and Paul in the Galata Gate area
of Istanbul, they have upwards of 50 at Mass every Sunday, with a
far larger number tending to treat the church and its grounds as the
centre of their community. It is in the Genoese quarter of Istanbul,
where the Dominicans have been since the 12th century.

Currently there are five priests in the community, including Fr
Lawlor. Two are doing further study at Istanbul university while also
trying to restore the community's library.

Another member, Fr Giuseppe, was organist at the pope's Mass in
Ephesus yesterday and regularly gives concerts in the Church of St
Peter and St Paul. The community superior, Fr Lorenzo, is also vicar
of the diocese and has been in Turkey for 32 years, 23 of them at
the St Peter and Paul community, where all live in frugal comfort.

Fr Lawlor has regular contact with another Irish priest in Istanbul,
Rev Ian Sherwood from Wicklow, who is of the Anglican tradition.

Fr Lawlor described him as "an amazing character". Rev Sherwood is
based at the nearby Crimean Memorial Church, which he had restored
completely.