Monday, June 27, 2011

Answered Prayers

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is redrawing the Constitution. Why the devout Muslim is good for the Christians.

As a teenager growing up in a tough Istanbul neighborhood, Recep Tayyip Erdogan studied to be an Islamic cleric. His dream, though, was to become a professional player on the local Kasimpasa football team. In the end, neither ambition worked out: he became Turkey’s prime minister instead. Now, after nine years in power, Erdogan has just pulled off his third—and biggest—general-election win on an ambitious program that includes a radical redrawing of Turkey’s Constitution. The theology student from Kasimpasa now wants to remake the hard-wiring of the Turkish state by scrapping restrictions on religious freedom; creating a powerful French-style presidency (presumably with himself as the first incumbent); and by making the country’s judges, universities, and Army more accountable to Parliament: a to-do list that rings loud alarm bells for many Turks—and friends of Turkey. The country’s old secular elite fears that allowing Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party a say in the appointment of judges, school principals, and university rectors will make the country more Muslim and more conservative. Pundits and politicians in America and Israel aren’t thrilled with the idea of giving Erdogan more power—especially after he railed about a Jewish press conspiracy against him during the campaign. And Turkey’s chattering classes are increasingly concerned about Erdogan’s intolerance of criticism. One hostile newspaper magnate has been landed with crippling tax bills, while more than 60 Turkish journalists languish in jail—more than in China.
Unexpectedly, though, Turkey’s tiny but ancient Christian community has welcomed the AK Party’s most recent landslide. Erdogan may be a deeply devout Muslim, and his party dominated by nondrinking, headscarf-wearing Sunni Muslims. But despite his Islamic grassroots, Erdogan advocates a historic softening of Turkey’s 80-year-old anti-Christian rules. Most significantly, he has helped save the 1,700-year old patriarchate of Constantinople. The current Patriarch Bartholomew, as senior bishop of the Orthodox Church, is spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox faithful around the world. But a 1923 Turkish law insists that the patriarch and all members of the Synod—the Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic College of Cardinals—be Turkish citizens drawn from Turkey’s tiny ethnic-Greek community, now just 2,500 strong. With Bartholomew already 71, and most of the Synod not much younger, it looked as though the end of the institution was nigh. But by granting Turkish citizenship to a new crop of younger Orthodox bishops from around the world, Erdogan likely saved the institution by ensuring Bartholomew’s succession.


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