ON THE edge of a village near Midyat is a stone building whose fate may test Turkey’s commitment to the European Union. Thirty Kurdish families in Bardakci use it as a mosque. But members of Turkey’s Syrian Orthodox Christian minority (or Syriacs) insist it is St Mary’s church, which served their community for 200 years until civil strife and economic hardship forced them out. They want it back.
Some 3,000 Syriacs in the south-east say their land and houses have been seized, not just by Kurds, but also by the state. In Kayseri, an American couple were recently sent death threats by e-mail because they are “Christian.” A Protestant pastor in Izmit province received a menacing letter and found a red swastika painted on his door. In Tarsus, a New Zealand missionary was beaten up and then told to leave by the mayor.
“Protestants are the most persecuted group in Turkey,” says Ihsan Ozbek, pastor of the Kurtulus Protestant church in Ankara. That may be exaggerated, but respecting the religious freedom of non-Muslims will be critical to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU. For a while Turkey did well. Laws against Christians repairing churches were scrapped, enabling the Syriacs to restore the ancient Mar Gabriel monastery near Bardakci. Another law was passed to let non-Muslim religious foundations buy land. Timoteus Samuel Aktas, the metropolitan of Mar Gabriel, proudly shows off a new recreation centre for monks at his monastery. Yet recent attacks against Syriacs, including the detonation of a landmine under a car, have rung alarms – and made fellow Syriacs in Europe reconsider plans to return.
The government’s failure to denounce these attacks has been aggravated by its attempts to sell land in Bardakci that the Syriacs claim as their own. They have petitioned the authorities in Ankara, who have yet to respond. Some observers see this as a sign of the “reform fatigue” bedeviling the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan ever since he won the date of October 3rd for the start of EU membership talks. Others detect a mounting campaign against Christians by Islamist forces within Mr Erdogan’s party.
One shot was fired by the state institution that micro-manages religious life in Turkey, when it issued a sermon on March 11th to be preached at some 75,000 officially registered mosques. The sermon talked of the dangers posed to national unity by missionaries, who “work as a part of a plan to cut the ties of our citizens with the [Islamic] faith.” This was followed by a statement by Mehmet Aydin, the minister for religious affairs, calling missionary activities “separatist and destructive.” He was praised by nationalists, who fear that Europe has plans to convert Turks to
Christianity. It matters little that only 300 souls have defected in the past eight years – or that proselytizing is legally permitted.
Mr Erdogan still resists calls to reopen the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary on Heybeli island off Istanbul that was shut down in 1971. Allies say his hands are tied so long as he is unable to deliver on pre-electoral pledges to his pious constituents, especially to ease the ban on the Islamic headscarf in government offices, schools and universities. European diplomats counter that, by denying Christians their rights, Turkey is strengthening its growing army of detractors within the EU.
Back in Bardakci, Yusuf Ozkahraman, a 64-year-old Kurdish farmer, points smugly at St Mary’s church. “Only when the Christian forces become stronger than our state will this mosque be shut to the believers, and that day will never come,” he vows…