Crux: Covering all things Catholic
Oct 30 2014

John L. Allen Jr.

Recently the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis will travel to Turkey
Nov. 28-30, the official purpose for which is largely ecumenical.

He'll visit Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on the feast
of St. Andrew, considered their patron in much the same way Catholics
regard St. Peter as the first pope.

The trip is also a way for Francis to express concern for violence
in the region unleashed by the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate, and
to expand his outreach to the Islamic world.

But what's not yet clear is how much of a push Francis will make on
another front: An increasingly virulent anti-Christian climate in
Turkey, which tends to simmer constantly until it boils over into
lethal violence.

Turkey is officially secular. But sociologically it's an Islamic
society, with a population of 76 million that's 97 percent Muslim.

There are just 150,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox. Only the
Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities are recognized, so other
forms of Christianity operate in a gray zone - not quite illegal,
but not quite fully legitimate either.

Despite Turkey's reputation for moderation, there's a strong
ultra-nationalist current, with beachheads in the security services
and the military, which sees the West and Christianity as eternal
foes. Christians report various forms of harassment, including
difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches,
surveillance, unfair judicial treatment, and discrimination in housing
and employment.

In 2009, the normally diplomatic Bartholomew told "60 Minutes" that
he feels "crucified" by a state that wants to see his Church die out.

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This undercurrent of disdain is reflected, among other things, in
conspiracy theories about Christianity that have become staples of
the Turkish best-seller lists.

In 2001, journalist Ergun Poyraz published Six Months among the
Missionaries. He wrote, "A big missionary army has invaded our
country," and added an ominous warning: "This land has been Turkish
for thousands of years. Its price was paid with blood. Those dreaming
of getting back these lands should foresee paying the same price."

Ilker Cinar, who claimed to be a convert to Christianity who led a
Protestant mission for ten years before returning to Islam, published
a highly popular book in 2005 called I was a Missionary, the Code is
Decoded. He warned that Christians are scheming to "reconquer" Turkey,
working in league with the Kurds and their militant faction PKK.

It's also become common to see public assaults on symbols of Christian
identity. In December 2013, the Anatolian Youth Association, a youth
branch of the pro-Islamic Felicity Party, launched a campaign against
any public celebration of Christmas, including burning Santa Claus
dolls and threatening retaliation against anyone who put up Christmas

Reflecting that climate, physical attacks on Christians have become
increasingly common and bold.

In January 2006, a Protestant church leader named Kamil Kiroglu, a
Muslim convert to Christianity, was beaten unconscious by five young
men. In February 2006, a well-known Italian Catholic missionary, Rev.

Andrea Santoro, was gunned down by a 16-year-old Muslim in the small
city of Trabzon.


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In January 2007, a prominent Turkish journalist of Armenian descent
named Hrant Dink, a Protestant, was assassinated in Istanbul. In
April 2007 in Malatya, three Protestant Christian missionaries,
two Turks and one German, were tortured, stabbed and strangled.

In June 2010, Bishop Luigi Padovese, the Catholic Apostolic Vicar
for Anatolia and president of the Catholic bishops' conference,
was assassinated by his driver. Witnesses reported that the killer
shouted afterwards, "Allahu Akbar, I have killed the greatest Satan!"

As recently as earlier this year, there were accusations that elements
in the Turkish military were aiding Muslim extremist groups that
carried out lethal assaults on Armenian Christians in northwest Syria
near the Turkish border.

To date, there has been little momentum to explore the ways in which
this violence has been fueled by an environment in which anti-Christian
prejudice is not only acceptable, but almost fashionable.

In December 2011, a columnist for the Turkish daily Zaman complained
that "the Vatican is not doing anything" to ensure the investigation
of Padovese's death "is handled in a serious manner." If the Vatican
would take a more aggressive stance, he wrote, it would enhance "the
well-being of all non-Muslims" and offer "a huge contribution to the
promotion of human rights and freedom of religion in Turkey."

Pope Francis has amassed tremendous political capital in the Islamic
world, in part because of his friendships with Muslims in Argentina,
and in part because of his May outing to the Holy Land where he
made an impromptu stop at the barrier separating Jerusalem from the
West Bank, a move that was perceived as a gesture of solidarity with
Palestinian suffering.

The question is whether he'll spend some of that earned capital
while in Turkey to press President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to combat
this anti-Christian hostility.

If he does, we may not know right away. Whenever a pope travels to
a country whose ruler has a dubious human rights record, a smiling
photo-op is often the price to be paid in order to lay down a challenge
behind the scenes. That was the deal John Paul II made, for instance,
when he visited Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Augusto Pinochet
in Chile, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and so on.

Certainly the Christians Francis is coming to visit are hoping he'll do
something similar during his Nov. 28 meeting with Erdogan at Ankara's
new presidential palace, a sprawling $350 million structure denounced
by critics as both an environmental blight and a symbol of Erdogan's
autocratic tendencies.

The drama of Francis' Turkey trip is partially contained in how clearly
Erdogan gets the message: "When it comes to the fate of Christians
and other minorities, we are watching ... and we'll tell the world
what we see."