Los Angeles Times
November 30, 2014 Sunday
Home Edition

by Umar Farooq, Farooq is a special correspondent.


Dressed in a neatly pressed dark suit, Bedri Diril, 41, stood patiently
Saturday among a crowd of hundreds in front of St. Esprit Cathedral
in Istanbul awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis.

"We Christians do have problems here, but they are not brought up in
public much," Diril said, clutching a cherished invitation to Mass
with the pontiff, one of only a few hundred such invites distributed
among the city's dwindling Christian communities. "Me and some of my
friends, we no longer wear crosses, or we put them inside our shirts,
[to hide] being Christian," he said.

Francis arrived in Istanbul on Saturday on the second day of his
three-day visit to this overwhelmingly Muslim nation. His agenda
included meetings with fellow clerics, both Muslim and Christian,
and visits to the city's landmarks, including Sultan Ahmed (the Blue
Mosque), and Hagia Sophia, the former Orthodox cathedral that was
converted into a mosque and then into a museum, its status for most
of the last century.

In Ankara on Friday, the pope cast a spotlight on the flight of
religious minorities from Iraq and Syria, where Christians and others
face persecution by Sunni Muslim extremists.

"Hundreds of thousands of persons have been forced to abandon their
homes and countries in order to survive and remain faithful to their
religious beliefs," Francis said.

For many Christian Turks, the exodus reminds them of their own nation's
legacy of intolerance for Christians, a history that Turkish society
has still not entirely accepted.

A century ago, Christians accounted for as much as 20% of the
population of Turkey. Today, Christians and other non-Muslims make
up less than 1% of all Turks.

An Assyrian Christian turned Roman Catholic, Diril moved to Istanbul
with his family 22 years ago, a time when violence between the Turkish
military and Kurdish rebels made life difficult in their village in
eastern Turkey. Nationalist Turks antagonistic to the Kurds were also
hostile to Assyrians, Diril said.

"Even though we were Turkish citizens, they called us foreigners,"
he said.

Religious diversity was once much more a part of life in Turkey.

A hundred years ago, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire,
Istanbul was home to large numbers of non-Muslims, including Greek
and Armenian Christians and a sizable Jewish community. Today, about
120,000 Christians remain in the entire country.

Hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians were deported in 1915-18,
many violently, resulting in the deaths of as many as 1.5 million
people, the first genocide of the 20th century. The Turkish government,
successor to the Ottoman empire, rejects the term "genocide" and says
the deaths of Armenians and others at the time were the result of war,
displacement, disease and other factors.

After World War I, hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians
were forced out as part of a population exchange that saw Muslim
Greeks sent to Turkey. Additional expulsions of Greek Orthodox
Christians followed.

Decades later, many Christians say they still sense resentment.

"They hate us, they want to finish us off," Simon Barsamian, a young
Armenian, said at the Armenian Patriarchal Church, one of only 34
functioning Armenian churches in Turkey.

The Armenian Patriarchate was established in 1461, eight years after
Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople, now Istanbul.

"We don't get much trouble from the Islamists," Barsamian said. "Our
problems are usually from nationalists."

In the last decade, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and
Development Party, or AKP, which has Islamist roots, has made a
series of conciliatory overtures. Universities have held conferences
to discuss the Armenian deaths, the centenary of which will be marked
next year throughout the Armenian diaspora community.

The Turkish government has returned some property seized from
minorities, introduced Christianity into theology classes in schools,
and publicly acknowledged the events of 1915-18, while still denying
a mass extermination of Armenians.

"We don't know the AKP's real intentions," said Nejla Karabulut,
one of a small number of Turkish Muslims hoping to catch a glimpse
of the pope at St. Esprit Cathedral. "They use religion for politics."

The reforms are inadequate, she says, attributing them to the ruling
party's desire to build support among minorities against a secular,
often nationalist, opposition.

"There is still a very long way to go," said Karin Karakasli,
a former editor of Agos, a prominent Armenian-Turkish newspaper,
pointing out that Turkey's border with Armenia remains closed, and
leading politicians still refer to Armenians as "traitors."

In 2007, a Turkish nationalist gunned down the newspaper's editor,
Hrant Dink, after he highlighted the fate of Turkey's Armenians. One
person was convicted of the murder, but a wider investigation that
appeared to implicate the military, police and politicians was
abruptly halted.

(In 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of a Turkish ultra-nationalist
organization known as the Gray Wolves, shot and wounded Pope John
Paul II in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. The pontiff recuperated
and later forgave Agca for the assassination attempt.)

Karakasli says many Turks are moving on in regard to the Armenian
issue, even if their government remains reticent about the catastrophic

"Younger Turks have questioned the official history ... [for] more
than a decade," she said. "There are alternative sources for research;
talking about the issue is no longer a taboo."


Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to
this report.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress