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Turkey is better facing west

02 November 2006

Hopes of joining Europe make life better for Turkish Christians, Stephen Griffith writes

AS the European Union struggled to negotiate a beginning to Turkey’s membership, one of the most gripping images must have been the demonstration by Austrian opponents of Turkish EU entry. They reminded the world of the Armenian massacres of 90 years ago.

It is ironic that the Christian group in Turkey which has grown most in number in the past decade is the Armenians, swelled by migrants who would prefer to live and work (often illegally) in Turkey than in the Armenian Republic. The ghost of the million and more Armenians killed between 1895 and 1915 still hangs round the modern republic’s deliberations, but clearly many Armenians have a more pragmatic view than the comfortable protesters of Vienna.

Many of the opponents of Turkish membership are informed by emigrant groups. Some of the most strident attacks on Turkey come from Assyrian and Syriac groups in Sweden, who continue the tribal politics of their native land in their new home in the way that Kashmiri or Sikh groups sometimes do in the UK.

The Ottoman Empire had a vast Christian population. In the century since its collapse, the Middle East has seen a haemorrhaging of those peoples, and this has accelerated in the past 25 years. The reasons have been complex, but in Turkey life became particularly unbearable in the last decades of the century. One of the main causes was the Kurdish rising led by Abdullah Ocalan and his PKK, which terrorised both Kurds and other ethnic groups until the ceasefire in 1999.

In the mid-1990s I was asked by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) to report on the condition of the Syriac Orthodox community in the deeply Kurdish south-east of Turkey. I left the plains of Syrian Mesopotamia and went up the mountain to Deir Zafaran, the Saffron Monastery, to be greeted by the monks. They had just had news that a Syriac teacher had been killed, with his heavily pregnant wife. This was the latest in a long line of unsolved murders. Everyone knew that the murderers were Kurdish extremists, but the police were both incapable and unwilling to deal with these killings.

It was a time when almost the whole community fled, and the desperation is well pictured in William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain. The Christian population had dropped from 20,000 to 2000 in ten years in the midst of the Kurdish uprising, under a government that cared nothing for this ancient Christian minority.

CTBI’s lobbying was part of a wide advocacy focused on the EU, and the result has been a dramatic change. Ten years ago, the Christians were severely hindered from repairing buildings, teaching their children, receiving guests, and many other activities. As a result of EU pressure and a change of government in Ankara, the exodus has stopped, and some families are returning. Today, the Bishop at Deir Zafaran is frequently invited to meet the local governor, the children learn Syriac, rebuilding work is done, and thousands of visitors come to the different monasteries, to be welcomed at a new visitor centre.

The governor has asked the Bishop at Mor Gabriel monastery, deeper in the wilds of Kurdish Turkey, if it is possible to re-open the prestigious Mor Awgen monastery, which has been closed for decades and was out of bounds during the worst of the troubles. The change of attitude came because the EU put pressure on the Turkish authorities, and Turkey responded.

Life for Christians in the acutely nationalist Turkish Republic was never easy. Bizarrely, the secular state sometimes forced Christians to convert to Islam in the 1920s, and pressure on Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Christians made life very difficult for them. The exodus to western Europe often meant that the children of Turkish Christians had only non-Turkish nationality, and so could not return legally to possess their lands, houses, and businesses. Neither could they take up permanent positions as priests, nuns or monks. The Ecumenical Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen; but the pool of Greek Orthodox priests of Turkish nationality is tiny, and this poses a threat to the wellbeing of the whole Byzantine family of Churches. Joining the EU will change all this.

The concerns expressed by some EU countries about Muslim Turkey’s joining this Christian club possibly miss the point. For the Christians of Turkey, and those of Turkish extraction now living in the diaspora, it can have only positive implications.

It will also mean that the many Turks who wish to become Christian will find it much easier. There are many new Evangelical churches growing, and when The Passion of the Christ was shown in Istanbul the cinemas were packed, dozens standing in the aisles. Many Turks are fascinated by Christianity, and now visit the ancient Christian sites in thousands. One of the great stresses in the monasteries of the south-east is dealing with the coachloads of Turkish visitors every weekend.

For post-Communist countries, the transition to capitalist EU membership is very difficult; it will be difficult for Turkey. But the result for Turkey and the EU could be of great benefit, and the alternative — pushing this modernising state towards the crumbling countries of central Asia — is unthinkable.

The Revd Stephen Griffith was the representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, to both Armenian Catholicoses, and to the Orthodox Patriarchs of Georgia and Antioch.

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