Vatican analyst Sandro Magister takes a closer look at the recent meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. “But like other conciliatory gestures in the past, this one also risks producing no results,” notes the introduction on Chiesa online. Magister examines Pope Benedict XVI’s reservations about the entry of Turkey into the European Union and “the caution” of Vatican diplomacy.
Erdogan and the Christians. Few Promises, Zero Action
by Sandro Magister
ROME, August 27, 2009 – Samuel Huntington called Turkey “Janus-faced,” you never know if it’s a friend or enemy of the West.
The same thought must have come to mind for Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, when last August 15 he welcomed Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a visit to the orphanage and monastery of Saint George Koudounas on the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea.
It was the first time that a Turkish prime minister had gone to the Princes Islands, traditionally inhabited by Christians, and to a building, the orphanage, which after being requisitioned by the Turkish authorities was ruled to belong to the ecumenical patriarchate by the court of Strasbourg in June of 2008.
During his visit, Erdogan, accompanied by four of his ministers, had lunch with Bartholomew I and with representatives of the religious minorities in Turkey – Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Syriac Orthodox, and Catholic – to whom he made guarantees against all forms of religious and ethnic discrimination.
“My neighbor must be met with love, because he is also a creature of God,” Erdogan said, citing a maxim from the Mevlevi Shiite confraternity, which emerged on Konya in the 13th century, with some elements taken from Christianity.
Asked for a comment, Bartholomew I told Asia News: “Erdogan’s presence was an honor for us, and it gave us an opportunity to present our problems directly, although he already knows about them. We invited the prime minister to the see of the ecumenical patriarchate and to Halki, and Erdogan thanked us for the invitation.”
Halki is another island, the site of the seminary of theological formation for the ecumenical patriarchate, which was closed by the Turkish authorities in 1971. Last June 10, in Brussels, Olli Rehn, the European Union commissioner for enlargement and therefore also overseeing the possible entry of Turkey, stated that this entry is conditional in part on the reopening of the Halki seminary.
Erdogan has until December of 2009 to present the authorities in Brussels with an account of the progress that Turkey has made in meeting the standards necessary for entry into the EU. For the patriarchate, this is one more reason to hope that the theological seminary of Halki will finally be reopened and resume its functions.
Unfortunately, however, “Janus” has repeatedly frustrated expectations, showing this and other religious minorities in Turkey not its friendly face, but its hostile one.
Regarding the patriarchate, for example, the Turkish state continues to decline to recognize its religious “ecumenicity.” It treats it as a local body established for the worship of the Greek Orthodox, headed by a leader who must be born a Turkish citizen, devoid of legal personality and therefore also of the right to property. The annihilation of the patriarchate – which in Turkey today has been reduced to a few more than 3,000 faithful – has so far shown no serious signs of turning around.
This also applies to the other Christian minorities. The most substantial community, that of the Armenians, was decimated less than a century ago by a genocide that the authorities in Ankara refuse to acknowledge, and today there are just a few tens of thousands of them left, out of a population of more than 70 million inhabitants, almost all of them Muslim. There are about 25,000 Catholics, with six bishops, 10,000 Syriac Orthodox, and 3,000 Protestants of various denominations.
Like Erdogan, but not for the same reasons, all of these religious minorities have high hopes for Turkey’s entry into the European Union. For them, this entry would mean the recognition of room for freedom that they fear will otherwise continue to be significantly limited.
In Europe itself, however, their reasoning receives little consideration. Some governments there, including those of Italy and Germany, are in favor of Turkey’s entry into the EU, while others, like that of France, are against it. Nonetheless, both sides are thinking in terms of national interest. Calculations involving the oil and gas pipelines that originate in Turkish-speaking, Muslim countries in central Asia, and pass through Turkey, take precedence over those concerning religious freedom.
Against this background, the position of the Holy See also appears two-faced.
On the one hand, Vatican diplomacy takes into account both the expectations of the Catholics and the other religious minorities in Turkey, and the geopolitical factors seen as favoring its entry into the EU. The man most candid in expressing this cautiously optimistic view has been Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state, in an interview with “La Documentation Catholique” at the beginning of 2007.
Having stated that the Catholic Church has no “special power to promote the entry of Turkey into Europe, or to veto this,” Bertone said in the interview that “without Turkey, Europe would no longer benefit from that bridge between East and West which this country has always been in the course of history. […] Leaving Turkey outside of Europe also risks fostering Islamist fundamentalism within the country.”
On the other hand, however, Church authorities are also sensitive to the opposing dangers that the entry of Turkey into the European Union could bring: not a beneficial integration of Turkey into Europe, but a “catastrophe” for a continent that has renounced its Christian identity.
The word “catastrophe” is in the title of a book that contains the most incisive overview of these objections. Published in Italy this year, the book was written by historian Roberto de Mattei, vice president of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche and director of the magazine “Radici Cristiane.” It is entitled “La Turchia in Europa: beneficio o catastrofe?”, and opts decisively for the second of these two hypotheses.
In effect, the historical precedents are not encouraging. Modern-day Turkey was one of the most vital areas of Christianity during its first centuries, and still at the beginning of the 20th century, after centuries of Ottoman rule, it still had deep imprints of this Christian identity, and numerous faithful. Over a few decades, these imprints have also been nearly wiped out by the combined pressure of the exaggerated secularism of Kemal Atatürk and of the Islamist resurgence that ultimately came to power with Erdogan.
Benedict XVI is fully aware of these dangers. When he went to Turkey in November of 2006, it was just a few months after the killing of a Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, who was shot to death by an Islamist fanatic while he was kneeling in prayer in the little church of Trabzon.
During his trip to Turkey, Benedict XVI did not say a single word about the entry of this country into the European Union. And the international press interpreted this silence as assent, confirmed by a few comments made by Erdogan after his meeting with the pope. But there is no reason to think that Joseph Ratzinger has softened, as pope, the strong reservations that he expressed on this matter before being elected successor of Peter.
Ratzinger spoke out in this topic twice, within a short span of time, during the summer of 2004. The first time was in an interview with Sophie de Ravinel, for “Le Figaro Magazine” on August 13:
“Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. It is its culture that gives it a common identity. The roots that have formed it, that have permitted the formation of this continent, are those of Christianity. […] In this sense, throughout history Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe. There were the wars against the Byzantine empire, the fall of Constantinople, the Balkan wars, and the threat against Vienna and Austria. That is why I think it would be an error to equate the two continents. It would mean a loss of richness, the disappearance of culture for the sake of economic benefits. Turkey, which is considered a secular country but is founded upon Islam, could instead attempt to bring to life a cultural continent together with some neighboring Arab countries, and thus become the protagonist of a culture that would possess its own identity but would also share the great humanistic values that we should all acknowledge. This idea is not incompatible with close and friendly forms of association and collaboration with Europe, and would permit the development of unified strength in opposition to any form of fundamentalism.”
The second time, he was speaking to the pastoral workers of the diocese of Velletri, on September 18:
“Historically and culturally, Turkey has little in common with Europe; for this reason, it would be a great error to incorporate it into the European Union. It would be better for Turkey to become a bridge between Europe and the Arab world, or to form together with that world its own cultural continent. Europe is not a geographical concept, but a cultural one, formed in a sometimes conflictual historical process centered upon the Christian faith, and it is a matter of fact that the Ottoman empire was always in opposition to Europe. Even though Kemal Atatürk constructed a secular Turkey during the 1920’s, the country remains the nucleus of the old Ottoman empire; it has an Islamic foundation, and is thus very different from Europe, which is a collection of secular states with Christian foundations, although today these countries seem to deny this without justification. Thus the entry of Turkey into the EU would be anti-historical.”
As pope, Benedict XVI has always demonstrated that he has at heart, more than the political destiny of Turkey, the fate of the Christians of that country and the efforts at reconciliation between the Church of Rome and the ecumenical patriarchate, relations with which are excellent.
But all the same, the Holy See is also a political player. And concerning the entry of Turkey into the European Union, there is a middle way between those for and those against, which the Vatican seems increasingly inclined to support.
It is the stance that Cardinal Bertone himself hinted at in the cited interview with “La Documentation Catholique”: not the complete integration of Turkey into Europe, but participation on a strictly economic level.