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The State of Religious Liberty in Turkey
Interview With R.M.T. Schmid of the Becket Institute

ROME, NOV. 26, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The Christian churches in Turkey want more religious freedom, even as they realize that the country's secularism might also be a bulwark against radical Islam, says an observer.

Raphaela M.T. Schmid, the Rome director of the Becket Institute for Religious Liberty, offered that assessment in this interview.

Schmid just returned from Istanbul where she spoke with religious authorities and government officials who will be meeting with Benedict XVI later this week.

Q: What is the state of religion in Turkey?

Schmid: Turkey is not really an Islamic country, even if it is over 99% Muslim and mosque attendance is going up.

Until the 1920s it was a theocracy under Shariah law. Ataturk saw this as a stumbling block for social and commercial progress. He reinvented Turkey as a secular state and helped Turks gain the reputation of being "Muslims with a Protestant work ethic." His reforms included the abolition of polygamy, equal rights for women, coed public schools, and the prohibition of religious garb in public.

Ataturkist laws have been applied in such a way that Turkey de facto has an unofficial established religion, a moderate sort of Sunni Islam. The state appoints imams; it oversees what is preached in the mosques and what is taught in Koran schools.

Q: Why are Muslim Turks not reacting against this sort of state control?

Schmid: Recent polls indicate that the majority see themselves as Turks first and as Muslims second. Ataturk is universally revered as a hero; his memory and legacy are protected by law. But behind this picture of national pride, Ataturkist secularism and Muslim identity make for conflicting loyalties.

Turks who want to be good citizens of the republic may also want to wear the veil and send their kids to a Koran school of their choice. What makes this even trickier is the concern that religious freedom may be exploited by those who are pushing for a more radical, politicized Islam in Turkey. The military so far has been the protector of the secularity of the state. The question is whether that will remain so in the future.

So, it is important to understand that these problems cannot simply be resolved by appealing to international human rights tribunals.

The Turkish attitude toward religion in the public sphere is something that is intimately tied up with the modern notion of Turkish national identity, a notion more complex than Islamic law and tradition would have, where nationality and citizenship are defined by religion.

Q: What about the Christian churches in Turkey?

Schmid: Christian leaders say that it's easy to live in Turkey as a Christian. Turkey is known for its tradition of a very tolerant Islam, which goes back to medieval times.

It is striking, though, how the number of Christians has dwindled. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century half of the population of Istanbul was Christian. Now Christians make up less than 1%.

The circa 65,000 Armenian Christians in Turkey are the survivors of the ethnic cleansing of 1915-16, which is still a taboo subject. There are about 20,000 Syrian Orthodox and circa 20,000 Catholics.

Most of the Greek Orthodox were exchanged for Greek Muslims that came to Turkey in the '20s. Their patriarch, Bartholomew I, as far as Turks are concerned, is a foreign cleric with a local congregation of not more than 3,000 faithful. The fact that 300 million Christians around the world recognize his authority does not figure.

In fact, all Christian churches are regarded as foreign and relations with them are handled mostly by the Foreign Ministry, even if their members are Turkish citizens and the presence of those churches predates Turkey, the Ottoman Empire and Islam by centuries.

Q: What are the concrete problems Christians face in Turkey?

Schmid: Christians can freely worship, but there are difficulties. Limitations imposed by the state have left their schools struggling. Christian seminaries were closed in the '70s and the communities find it difficult to train their leaders and teachers.

There is a treaty which guarantees legal status to non-Muslim religious communities, but it doesn't specify, so the interpretation by the Turkish state is rather random. The Catholic Church, for example, does not have legal status; it cannot own or inherit properties, etc.

So, the Christian churches want more religious freedom but they too are aware that the secularism of the Turkish state may also be a bulwark against a more radical form of Islam.

Q: What is the significance of the papal visit in Turkey?

Schmid: Of course, this is not the first Pope to visit. In recent times both Paul VI and John Paul II have been to Turkey.

The Turks' favorite Pope is John XXIII, who before his election had been nuncio in Istanbul for nearly a decade. He is even nicknamed "The Turkish Pope." "He really knew us," "he really understood us" is what we were told, and the reason given again and again was this: "because he loved us."

Pope Benedict XVI was originally invited by Patriarch Bartholomew, but because of the Regensburg lecture this ecumenical meeting now is eclipsed by the visit to Turkey as a Muslim country.

So far there have been only two occasions when the Turkish media have paid real attention to this Pope. One was when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he commented that Turkey's joining Europe would be "anti-historical"; the other occasion was his lecture at Regensburg. In each instance, certain sound bites from his discourse were overamplified so as to drown out the actual point he was making.

Q: Was did the Pope actually say about Turkey and Europe?

Schmid: Cardinal Ratzinger in a 2004 interview with Le Figaro magazine was considering the European Union and Turkey from a cultural perspective.

He suggested that Turkey's integration into Europe may mean a loss of richness and cultural distinctiveness for the sake of economic benefits. This caused waves of indignation in Turkey, where the memory of that interview still seems to be that Cardinal Ratzinger in some way didn't deem Turkey worthy of entry.

To me quite the opposite seems the case: He was taking Turkey and its distinct culture very seriously when he questioned whether this sort of loss would be worth it for Turkey. He expressed himself in favor of a Turkey that may be a bridge between Europe and the East precisely because of its own distinct identity, rooted in Islam rather than Christianity.

This line of thinking is not necessarily an expression of a clash-of-civilizations worldview. I see it in line with a recurring theme in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger: that religion and culture cannot be separated.

This is why he expressed himself in favor of close forms of association and collaboration that at the same time would not abandon the cultural concept of a Europe rooted in Christianity.

Ironically, I heard this same point made by Turkish intellectuals and Muslim authorities, only that they start by saying that Turkey should be part of the EU for economic reasons and then admit that, of course, it should maintain its own culture, rooted in Islam.

Q: How does the Regensburg lecture fit into all this?

Schmid: The Pope's point was that a dialogue of religions can only take place where there is room for both faith and reason. He warned against two extremes: a rationality that rejects religion and a religion that rejects rationality.

He tried to show that "whether God has to act in accordance with reason" for any religion is a question with far-reaching consequences. To illustrate that it is not a new question he quoted the now infamous 14th-century emperor Paleologus accusing Islam of getting the answer wrong. But the Pope also looked at Christianity and its own moments of placing God above and beyond reason. So, I think he tried to initiate a conversation on the level of a philosophy of religion.

It didn't seem to go so well at the time and Pope Benedict's meeting with the highest Muslim authority, the president of religious affairs, is made awkward by the fact that he was someone who spoke out very quickly and very strongly against the Regensburg speech, though he later admitted that he had not read it. But as the Grand Mufti of Istanbul said in this context: What starts out badly may still come to a good end.