Thursday, July 03, 2014

Christianity in Ataturk’s Capital

In Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, attending Mass on Sunday requires choosing between several embassies: the Italian, French, and Vatican properties each host Catholic chapels.

The British Embassy has a lovely Anglican church in its backyard while the Greek Embassy harbors a small Orthodox place of worship. Some Protestants hold services at a local U.S. military facility and evangelical denominations are said to rent office space.

But nowhere, in this metropolis of 5 million, will you find a free standing Christian church naming itself with a cross out front.

The situation results from a twist of history — and discrimination.

Kemal was elected president and renamed Ataturk (father of the Turks) by parliament. He initiated radical social changes aimed at converting Turkey into a secular republic.

Focusing on religion, he dismantled the Islamic power structure, put all mosques under state control, banned religious education, and restricted sacred construction. While private worship was constitutional, religion was eliminated from the public sphere.

This anti-religion ideology made it impossible for the Catholic Church to build new churches in a city such as Ankara, which had none.

Another problem facing Catholics since Ataturk is that the faith has no legal status: the Church can’t officially own property or operate churches, schools, or hospitals. 

Armenians, Jews, and Orthodox Christians are classified as Non-Muslim minorities, with some rights grounded in the 1923 Lausanne treaty, but Catholics have been excluded from protection.  

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