International Herald Tribune
Orthodox Christianity under threat
By Nicholas Gage
Monday, September 8, 2008
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and his Islamic-rooted party came under fierce fire this summer from secularists, who came close to persuading the country's supreme court to bar both from politics, he called the campaign an attack against religious freedom and a threat to Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.
Yet in nearly six years in power, Erdogan has shown no inclination to extend even a modicum of religious freedom to the most revered Christian institution in Turkey - the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual center of 300 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world. As a result, Turkey's persecution of the Patriarchate looms as a major obstacle to its European aspirations, and rightly so.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was established in the fourth century and once possessed holdings as vast as those of the Vatican, has been reduced to a small, besieged enclave in a decaying corner of Istanbul called the Phanar, or Lighthouse. Almost all of its property has been seized by successive Turkish governments, its schools have been closed and its prelates are taunted by extremists who demonstrate almost daily outside the Patriarchate, calling for its ouster from Turkey.
The ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, is often jeered and threatened when he ventures outside his walled enclave. He is periodically burned in effigy by Turkish chauvinists and Muslim fanatics. Government bureaucrats take pleasure in harassing him, summoning him to their offices to question and berate him about irrelevant issues, blocking his efforts to make repairs in the few buildings still under his control, and issuing veiled threats about what he says and does when he travels abroad.
Successive Turkish governments have followed policies that deliberately belittle the patriarch, refusing to recognize his ecumenical status as the spiritual leader of a major religious faith but viewing him only as the head of the small Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul.
Last year 42 of the 50 members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Erdogan urging his government to "end all restrictions" on the religious freedom of the Patriarchate, described by Tom Lantos, who then chaired the committee, as "one of the world's oldest and greatest treasures." The congressmen urged the Turkish government to join the rest of the world in recognizing the ecumenical standing of the Patriarchate, to return expropriated property, to reopen its schools, including the renowned theological seminary on the island of Halki, and to end all interference in the process of selecting the patriarch, particularly the "continued insistence that he be a Turkish citizen."
As Orthodox Christians have been systematically persecuted in Turkey and there are now less than 2,500 of them left in the country, the congressmen wrote, the Patriarchate will soon cease to exist if future patriarchs have to be Turkish citizens. "It is the church, not the Turkish state, that should determine who becomes ecumenical patriarch," their chairman declared.
Despite their letter and other efforts by statesmen from many countries to try to persuade the Turkish government to liberalize their policies toward the Patriarchate, its leaders have not budged - even though they know their stand may harm their chances of entering the European Union.
Their intransigence clearly demonstrates that while they want to enter Europe for its economic advantages, they are not prepared to liberalize their policies enough to alleviate Western concerns about allowing them to join. Until Turkey moves to make the fundamental changes necessary, starting with its policies toward the Patriarchate, admission of the country into the EU will pose major risks.
When I was covering Turkey for The New York Times in the late 1970s, its population was 34 million. Today it is 71 million and growing, while the birthrate in Europe is falling precipitously. In addition, Turkey's combined troop strength of 1.1 million overwhelms the armed forces of even the biggest European nations. If Turkey becomes a full member of the European Union, will it accommodate to Europe's liberal traditions or will it use its demographic and military prowess to bend Europe to its will? The EU has already ruled that Turkey must allow the ships of Cyprus, an EU member, to use Turkish ports, but Turkey has completely ignored the ruling despite its eagerness to join Europe. So the key question is whether Turkey is willing to adapt to Europe or wants only to join the EU on its own terms. It is crucial for Europe to know Turkey's real intentions before opening its doors to the country.
Turkey's treatment of the Patriarchate, therefore, must remain a litmus test of its readiness to join the European Union. If Turkey cannot recognize the value of "one of the world's oldest and greatest treasures" in its own midst, how can it be expected to appreciate and respect the liberal values and traditions that define Europe? If Turkey insists on entering Europe on its own inflexible terms, the danger that it will overwhelm Europe, engulf it and change it radically cannot be underestimated.
The Patriarch of Constantinople himself has said that he believes the risk is worth taking and that he strongly supports Turkey's admission. I, too, believe that Turkish membership holds great benefits for all concerned, especially the Turkish people, but not as Turkey is constituted today - intolerant, suspicious, inflexible.
For Turkey to join Europe, it must show that it is ready to take great strides in adopting a European outlook, not the baby steps it has taken until now. The best way to begin is with the Patriarchate at the Phanar, "the Lighthouse," which can become a beacon to light a path for Turkey into Europe, if only the country's leaders find the wisdom to see it.
Nicholas Gage writes often about the Eastern Mediterranean.