THE Archbishop of Canterbury visited the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, earlier this month, to the surprise of Anglican clergy in the country.
On the day after the visit, on 15 February, the Turkish authorities imposed life sentences on six journalists, and the UN issued a fresh call for the release of the chair of Amnesty International Turkey, Taner Kiliç, who has been held since June 2017 on terrorism charges.
Lambeth Palace has declined to confirm anything about the meeting. A spokeswoman said on Monday that the Archbishop met “a variety of people” in the course of his visit, and would not comment on “private meetings”.
Reports in the Turkish press state that the Archbishop was received at the Presidential Palace. It was the first meeting between the two men, and closed to the press. A photograph shows that the Bishop of Bradford, Dr Toby Howarth, formerly the Archbishop’s secretary for interreligious affairs, was also present.
President Erdoğan presented the Archbishop with a book entitled New Turkey’s Vision: The world is bigger than five, a common theme of the President’s, referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The Archbishop was also given a copy of a letter that Sultan Murad III, of the Ottoman Empire wrote to Queen Elizabeth I.
The letter reads: “As long as we act together against the enemies and abide by the agreement signed between the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom, British merchants will not be subject to any unfair treatment. . .”
President Erdoğan gave a copy of the same letter to David Cameron in 2010.
The meeting was not publicised by Lambeth Palace and is not listed in the Archbishop’s online diary.
On Monday, the Chaplain of Christ Church, Istanbul, Canon Ian Sherwood, said that Anglican clergy in Turkey had not been informed of the meeting, and that attempts to seek clarification from Lambeth Palace on 19 February had still not been answered. “The Diocesan Bishop responsible for Turkey as well as HM Embassy in Ankara could not add any further light to the situation,” he said. He described Anglicans in Turkey as “mystified”.
“We have no doubt that Archbishop Welby’s visit was well-intentioned, though seen as deplorable,” he said. “We look forward to hearing about it. So far we have heard not a peep.” It was difficult for Turkish friends to speak on the matter, he said, “as they could quickly be arrested”. He suggested that there was “no need . . . to deal with such secrecy and undisclosed business, even when dealing with such a divisive situation”.
The Assistant Priest at St Nicholas, Ankara, the Revd Ebrahim Ahmadinia, said on Wednesday that he had only learned of the visit on the following day.
“I was totally shocked and disappointed that the Archbishop had completely ignored the Church that he is appointed to as the head and leader,” he said. “If he had visited President Erdoğan, or any other political, social, or economic figure, as Mr Welby or as a member of the House of Lords I would have nothing to complain about. I feel we have been ignored and isolated.”
The Church of St Nicolas of Myra in Ankara was the fastest growing church in the diocese in Europe, he had been told. “I see many teachers, pastors and missionaries in our congregation who can be a new bloodstream in future for the Anglican Church. We really deserve a short visit by people who would be a great encouragement to the clergy and congregation.”
The Turkish population is overwhelmingly Muslim: there are an estimated 150,000 Christians in a population of 80 million. The Archbishop’s meeting also took place on the same day as the vice-chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Kristina Arriaga, repeated calls for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American arrested in Turkey in 2016 and accused of trying to overthrow the Turkish government.
She said: “It was a surreal experience to spend an hour with an innocent man who has lost 50 lbs since his arrest, and is held in almost complete isolation. He is the only English speaker in his prison, the only Christian, he is never allowed to leave his cell for any reason except for a weekly visit from his wife or the consular officer.”
Since an attempted coup in July 2016, concerns have grown about human rights in Turkey and the power accumulated by President Erdoğan through constitutional amendments and presidential decrees. Last month, the UN’s human-rights special rapporteurs spoke of their concern that the government was “taking steps at odds with its obligations under human-rights law.
“We are deeply worried about severe crackdowns on civil society, including journalists, the media, human-rights defenders, jurists, academics, and civil servants, as well as the use of various powers in ways that are inconsistent with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Human-rights defenders and lawyers have been detained and charged with terrorism offences, in what the special rapporteurs describe as “a worrying pattern of silencing people whose work legitimately calls into question the views and policies of the government”.
On 16 February, six journalists were given life sentences after being found guilty of taking part in the coup attempt. Human Rights Watch reports that Turkey is “the world leader in prosecuting and jailing journalists and media workers”, with about 150 currently in prison. It estimates that 110,000 public officials have been dismissed since July 2016. Last year, the European Parliament called for a suspension of the EU accession process because of concerns about human rights.
Human Rights Watch has also condemned the number of reported civilian deaths in the new Turkish offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Turkish authorities ‘sabotage’ Patriarch election. THE Turkish authorities have ordered the Armenian Apostolic Church not to proceed with elections for a new Patriarch, perpetuating a feeling of “hopelessness”, it was reported last month.
The head of the Church’s clerical council, Bishop Sahak Mashalyan, told the news website Forum 18 that the inability to elect a Patriarch “deepens existing problems, leads our people to hopelessness, and our youth to a search for new horizons”.
The existing Patriarch, Archbishop Mesrob II Mutafyan, was not the state’s preferred candidate when he was elected in 1998. In 2008, it was announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and he was retired by the synod in 2016. Traditionally, the Patriarch must either die or resign before elections can take place, and divisions exist within the Church about how to proceed.
In 2010, the Istanbul Governorship, under the authority of the Interior Ministry, supported the appointment of Archbishop Aram Ateshian as Patriarchal Vicar-General. Last year, however, the clerical council declared the seat of the Patriarch vacant, and began the election process by electing a temporary leader: the head of the Armenian Church of Germany, Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian.
The Istanbul government swiftly stated that it was legally not possible to start the election process, arguing that, as Patriarch Mesrop had not died, the conditions were not right. It also insisted that Archbishop Ateshian remain Patriarchal Vicar-General. A meeting was held on 7 February between Armenian community leaders and the Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, after which the Clerical Council annulled the election of Archbishop Bekdjian and acknowledged the authority of Archbishop Ateshian.
In a resignation statement, Archbishop Bekdjian said that the state’s actions were an attempt to “sabotage the 85th Patriarchal Election and is the product of a long and planned campaign”.
Bishop Mashalyan, who has complained that Archbishop Ateshian is blocking progress towards elections, told Forum 18 that “the uncertainty of these extraordinary circumstances can no longer be tolerated.”
Although the 1982 constitution enshrines freedom of belief and worship, the Turkish government’s strict adherence to secularism means that all religious communities are subject to state controls. It is established practice that the state is involved in the election of leaders in Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities. The Armenian Apostolic Church is the largest of the Christian communities in Turkey.
Writing for Forum 18 last month, Dr Mine Yildirim, an expert on religious freedom, argued that “the situation of the Armenian community illustrates clearly the vulnerability of religious communities. . . The lack of an effective legal framework enforces dependency on political will, which can often change. Such an arrangement is not compatible with the norms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.”