Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Turkey's Religious Office to Extend Reach Beyond Mosques

The Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), the official body responsible for regulating religious practices and bureaus in Turkey, announced that it is also willing to provide “religious social services.” The ORA’s Director General of Religious Services, Dr. Yasar Yigit, said that the organization wants to go beyond managing mosques, and offer socially-oriented services in senior homes and prisons. Yigit said that the ORA also wanted to be involved in activities involving street children, anti-drug campaigns and the struggle against terrorism.

Dr. Yigit said that his department — which was founded in the same year that the Turkish Republic was created — will have 150,000 personnel in all corners of the country by the end of the year. “The ORA has become a gigantic institution. You can even come across an ORA officer in the most remote town in Turkey. Today, 3,500 staff members are serving abroad wherever there are Turks. We are about to sign protocols with the ministries of justice, health, family affairs and interior to regulate such activities,” he added.

Asserting that the society is in need of these services, Yigit said, “There may be those asking why we are expanding the scope of our services. It is because of the current trend worldwide: religion is increasingly gaining a functional role. This trend affects all societies and does not only apply only to our religion. Religion is now the main pillar for societies, cultures and civilizations.”

Friday, July 20, 2012

Turkey’s Human Rights Hypocrisy

A NEW political order is emerging in the Middle East, and Turkey aspires to be its leader by taking a stand against authoritarian regimes. Earlier this week, Turkey’s prime minister,Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went so far as to denounce the Syrian government’s continuing massacres of civilians as“attempted genocide.”
Turkey’s desire to champion human rights in the region is a welcome development, but Mr. Erdogan’s condemnation of Syria is remarkably hypocritical. As long as Turkey continues to deny crimes committed against non-Turks in the early 1900s, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, its calls for freedom, justice and humanitarian values will ring false.
Turkey’s attempt to cultivate an image as the global protector of Muslim rights is compromised by a legacy of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Christians and terror against Arabs and Kurds. Memories of these crimes are very much alive throughout former Ottoman territories. And Turkey cannot serve as a democratic model until it acknowledges that brutal violence, population transfers and genocide underlie the modern Turkish state.  
Using documents from the Ottoman government archives in Istanbul, which were once classified as top secret, I have sought to pull back the veil on Turkey’s century of denial. These documents clearly demonstrate that Ottoman demographic policy from 1913 to 1918 was genocidal. Indeed, the phrase “crimes against humanity” was coined as a legal term and first used on May 24, 1915, in response to the genocide against Armenians and other Christian civilians.
Britain, France and Russia initially defined Ottoman atrocities as “crimes against Christianity” but later substituted “humanity” after considering the negative reaction that such a specific term could elicit from Muslims in their colonies.
Today, Mr. Erdogan is seeking to be a global spokesman for Muslim values. In June 2011, he told thousands gathered to celebrate the landslide victory of his Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P.: “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul; Beirut won as much as Izmir; Damascus won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza won as much as Diyarbakir.” 
Speaking in support of oppressed Muslims has earned him popularity. But if Mr. Erdogan aspires to defend freedom and democracy in the region, he must also address the legitimate fears of Christians in the Middle East. Just as the European powers opted for universalism in 1915 by denouncing “crimes against humanity,” Mr. Erdogan must move beyond his narrow focus on “crimes against Muslims.” All oppressed peoples deserve protection.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Oldest Christian monastery at risk

The Mongolians failed to destroy it 700 years ago despite the massacre of 40 friars and 400 Christians. Yet the existence of the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world, the fifth century Mor Gabriel Monastery in the Tur Abdin plane (the mountain of God's servants) near the Turkish-Syrian border, is at risk after a ruling by Turkey's highest appeals court in Ankara.

Founded in 397 by the monks Samuel and Simon, Mor Gabriel in eastern Anatolia has been the heart of the Orthodox Syrian community for centuries. Syriacs hail from a branch of Middle Eastern Christianity and are one of the oldest communities in Turkey.

Today the monastery is inhabited by Mor Timotheus Samuel Aktash, 3 monks, 11 nuns and 35 boys who are learning the monastery's teachings, the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and the Orthodox Syriac tradition.

Although the monastery is situated in an area at the centre of conflicts between Kurdish separatist with the armed PKK group and the Turkish army, Mor Gabriel welcomes 20,000 pilgrims every year.

The Syriac Orthodox community - estimated to be 2.5 million across the world - is under the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch and considers the monastery a 'second Jerusalem'.

Today only 3,500 people are left and the 'second Jerusalem' is in danger. The heads of the three neighbouring Muslim villages, Kurds with the Belebi tribe, filed a lawsuit against the monastery years ago with the support of an MP member of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Under the lawsuit, the Syriacs are accused of practicing 'anti-Turkish activities' by providing an education to young people, including non Christians, and of illegally occupying land which belongs to the neighbouring villages.

After a number of contrasting verdicts, the highest appeals court in Ankara, which is close to the government, has ruled in favour of the village chiefs and said the land which has been part of the monastery for 1,600 years is not its property, Turkish newspaper Zaman reported.

The lawsuit also claimed that the sanctuary was built over the ruins of a mosque, forgetting that Mohammed was born 170 years after its foundation.


Monday, July 09, 2012

Turkey urged to ease up on Greek Orthodox seminary

Turkey's top Muslim cleric has supported calls for the government to allow the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary.
Mehmet Gormez said that Thursday after meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I during the first visit by a Turkish religious leader to the Istanbul-based Patriarchate since 1923.
Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, said he hopes Halki Theological School will be allowed to reopen on Heybeliada Island near Istanbul.
The school stopped admitting new students in 1971 under a Turkish law that put religious and military training under state control and closed in 1985.
Mostly Muslim Turkey, which is seeking to join the EU, has small Christian and Jewish communities. The bloc has made improved rights for the religious groups a condition for membership.