Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why Are 700 Greeks Praying In a Turkish Hotel?

There is a small town on Turkey’s western Aegean coast, called Ayvalik. On Sept. 29, a striking photo from this town hit the newspapers. A local hotel was hosting a religious service, attended by 700 clerics who came from various Greek islands.

Those familiar with the historic tensions between Turkey and Greece could assume that the clerics prayed in Ayvalik in a show of defiance. The actual story, however, is quite different, offering a good perspective of how much religious freedom non-Muslims enjoy in Turkey.
The clerics had in fact come to Ayvalik to hold a religious service at the local Taxiarchis Orthodox Church. But as they failed to obtain the “required” permission from the authorities, they had to make a last-minute arrangement and pray at a hotel.
Let’s see how things unfolded, as reported in the Taraf daily: “When the governor’s office denied them permission for a service at the Taxiarchis Church in Ayvalik, the 700 Greeks decided to book the conference hall of a hotel. The service, held in the conference hall of the Halic Park Hotel in Ayvalik, was attended by a total of 700 people, including 400 from the island of Lesbos and 300 from Athens, Crete and elsewhere. The Greek consul in Izmir, Theodore Tsakiris, a parliament member from Lesbos and the Orhomenos mayor also attended the service. A member of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, who requested anonymity, told Taraf : ‘Back in April, we applied to hold a service at the Taxiarchis Church on Sept. 29. We waited six months for a reply. The rejection came only three days before the scheduled service date. Why did they wait for six months? We believe they did so deliberately. Concerts are being organized in the church where we want to pray. It is hard to understand why our religious service becomes a problem while concerts are allowed to be held in the church.”
The Taraf story contains also the following information: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul applied to the governor’s office in April for a permission for a religious service on Sept. 29 at the Taxiarchis Church, which has a ‘museum’ status. The governor’s office, in turn, sought an approval from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The ministry rejected the request on the grounds that ‘the Taxiarchis Church does not figure in the 2000 catalogue of churches where religious services could be held.’”
You may already be confused. Why has a church become a museum? Why does worshipping in a church require the permission of administrative authorities? Why do Greek clerics hold prayers in Turkey?
Let’s start with the last question. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul is an ecumenical patriarchate, according to the title it uses. The title signifies a declaration that the ecumenical patriarch is the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians in the world, just as the pope is for Catholics. Even though some Orthodox churches do not recognize the patriarch’s authority, many others around the world accept the patriarchate in Istanbul as their universal spiritual leadership.
Turkey, however, refuses to recognize the patriarchate’s ecumenical title. Officially, the patriarchate is considered to be the religious institution of the Greek community in Istanbul, which has today dwindled to 3,000 people.
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, restrictions on the patriarchate have been eased to a certain degree, but measures that would meet the genuine needs of the institution have never materialized. A decision to reopen the Halki Theological School was removed at the last minute from the democratization package that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled on Monday, Sept. 30. The seminary is vital for raising future patriarchs.
This brief explanation should have made it clear why 700 Orthodox Greeks would come to Turkey for a religious service. They did so on the call of their spiritual leader to pray in a church which is historically theirs.

Read more:

Could Turkey’s Christians Wear Police Uniforms?

 Even though no such rule exists on the books, it so happens that not even one single non-Muslim army officer, policeman or judge exists in Turkey. Non-Muslims are absent not only from the security and judiciary establishment but from the public sector altogether. Why? Is it because of their small numbers?

Turkey’s non-Muslim population today is estimated at about 100,000. According to figures by the London-based Minority Rights Group International, it includes 23,000 Jews, 3,000 Greeks, 60,000 Armenians and 15,000 Syriacs. In addition, there are Turkish converts to Protestant Christianity, estimated to number between 3,000 and 5,000.

Could it be a coincidence that none of those 100,000-plus people are public servants? In an Aug. 8 article for Al-Monitor, I wrote about how non-Muslims are marked with secret codes in the birth registers. This practice became public knowledge by mere chance earlier this year when a woman, who applied to enroll her child in an Armenian school, received a reply from the Education Ministry which revealed that birth registration offices have been using ancestry codes to secretly mark citizens of Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Syriac origin.

In any other country, such revelation would have sparked a huge outcry and long occupied the public agenda, but in Turkey it merited only short-lived media coverage before being forgotten. The coding practice, in fact, provides an indirect explanation of why non-Muslims fail to become public servants in Turkey, since birth registration offices appear to keep records of ethnic and religious origins even after people change names or convert, almost like a permanent “criminal record.” The practice suggests that whenever a non-Muslim applies to become a police or army officer, the “secret” information in birth registries instantly flows to the related institutions.

The veto that non-Muslims face in the public sector came under the spotlight again this week through an intriguing incident. The spiritual leader of Turkey’s Syriacs, acting Patriarch Yusuf Cetin, gave an interview to the Milliyet daily, in which he questioned why “people of other faiths are not assigned posts in public administration, the military and the police.”

The directorate-general of police responded in a message on its official Twitter feed: “Mr. Yusuf Cetin, the Istanbul Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church, has made remarks asking why Syriac citizens are absent from the police department. All citizens of the Turkish Republic, regardless of religion, race and sect, are able to become police officers. We invite our Syriac citizens, too, to enter the exams of the police department and become police officers.”

The Hurriyet Daily News reported that representatives of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities greeted the message with skepticism. They stressed that the problem cannot be resolved with just an appeal and that the discrimination non-Muslims face in the public sector under unwritten rules cannot be eradicated overnight.

Read more:

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Monastery Land Returned

Turkish authorities decided the return of the lands of the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Syriac community in Turkey, as local media report. The Assembly of Foundations, the decision-making body of the Directorate General of Foundations, approved to return land to the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation on Monday.

The Director General of the Directorate General of Foundations, Adnan Erdem, said the assembly unanimously approved the decision to return the land adding that this decision means the biggest land return during the republican history of Turkey. Mor Gabriel is a 1,700-year-old historic monastery located in the southeastern province of Mardin's Midyat district. In 2008, the Forestry Ministry, the Land Registry Cadaster Office and the villages of Yayvantepe, Candarli and Eglence sued the monastery for allegedly occupying their fields.

The lawsuit was finalized last year, recognizing the monastery as an "occupier." The case was then brought to the European Court of Human Rights. "The land of the Mor Gabriel Monastery will return to the monastery's foundation," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised last week, while declaring a wide range of reforms on democracy.


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Church bells ringing again

For almost a century, the bells of St. Giragos, a magnificent 14th-century church built of sturdy black basalt bricks, were silent.

Severely damaged during the 1915 massacre and deportation of local Christians, it stood roofless and abandoned for decades, a poignant reminder of the void left by the killing of its congregants.

Yet for several months now the tolling of bells can once again be heard emanating from the belfry and echoing through the city’s narrow alleyways and busy markets.

St. Giragos recently underwent an extensive $3 million dollar restoration that included a new roof, the reconstruction of all seven of its original altars—a unique feature for a church, which usually has just one—and the return of an iron bell to its belfry.

“Right now the bells are just symbolic,” said Arahim Demirciyen, an ethnic Armenian who rings the bells twice a day. “A priest is currently in training in the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem. When he finishes and arrives here we can also start holding regular weekly services.”

The reopening of what church officials say is the largest Armenian place of worship in southeastern Turkey is part of a re-evaluation by Kurdish Muslims of the active role their ancestors played in the killings of minorities including Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and Jews in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire.



Saturday, October 05, 2013

Promised legal reforms disappoint Turkey’s religious minorities

The Turkish government’s long-awaited “democratisation package” of reform laws announced this week has met with considerable disappointment among Turkey’s minority religious communities.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed on Monday (September 30) a broad array of reform laws, drafted by his ruling Justice and Development Party for parliamentary debate and approval.

Although public focus remained on legal changes in the Kurdish resolution process, electoral reform and lifting the headscarf ban in public offices, there were some positive, if symbolic, steps affecting the nation’s non-Muslim communities.

But without question, the religious minorities were expecting more tangible changes to correct their status as second-class citizens: most prominently, the re-opening of the Orthodox Church’s Halki Seminary, along with recognition of the Alevis as a distinct faith community.

“There are positive aspects, but also there are important steps missing,” Laki Vingas told Today’s Zaman after Erdogan’s speech. A member of the Greek Orthodox community, Vingas represents non-Muslim foundations on the council of the Directorate General of Foundations under the prime minister’s office.

“The package in its entirety is positive, but there is nothing about Alevis,” Radikal columnist Yetvart Danziyan noted.

The Alevi community, estimated at 20 per cent of the Turkish population, is denied official recognition as a distinct faith community from the Sunni Muslim majority. As a result, Alevi cemevis (places of worship) are refused the state upkeep and tax exemptions granted to all Sunni mosques, Alevi dedes (religious leaders) are ineligible for the state salaries paid to Sunni imams, and basic Alevi beliefs are excluded from the required religion courses in all public schools.

Danziyan also observed, “The failure to open the [Halki] theological school has caused disappointment not only among the Greek community, but all minority groups.”