Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ankara's Nightmare

In late November Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Turkey for an official visit. He had hoped to be there last year at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch for the celebration of the Feast of St. Andrew the First Called (patron of the Patriarchal See). However Turkey informed the Holy See that November of 2006 would be a more convenient date. Yet when the Pope travels there he will not be meeting the Prime Minister of Turkey who it appears will be out of town. A previous engagement perhaps? Also as part of the lead up to this special event the Turkish press has been doing its fair and balanced best to ignore the papal visit. Except that is, when reporting on the general hostility to the trip by most Turks. So, why the cold shoulder?

There are two reasons which stand out. Both have some basis though I believe one carries far greater weight. The one that everyone is thinking of is +Benedict’s speech at Regensburg in which he quite correctly and courageously drew attention to some of the defects in the Islamic mind set which are not conducive to reason and in some cases lend somewhat to a predisposition to irrational and even violent behavior. The Pope’s decision to quote a Byzantine Emperor's highly polemic opinion regarding Islam produced a largely predictable result. There were mass protests some of which were quite hysterical and even violent. Churches were burned and people were attacked. At least one Roman Catholic nun and one Oriental Orthodox priest have been martyred as a result of the anti-Christian violence.

The second and in my opinion more significant reason, is that this visit will shine an unwelcome light on Turkey’s treatment of religious minorities at a time when they are seeking admission to the European Union. For years the Christian minority in Turkey have suffered varying degrees of persecution, both official and unofficial. Until fairly recently Turkey had a thriving minority population of ethnic Greeks (Orthodox Christians). However a series of pogroms and various quasi legal measures have combined to drive most of them out of the country. Today only a few thousand remain. In the 1970’s the Turkish government seized many churches and shut down the country’s only Orthodox seminary (which was world famous). Despite pleas to reopen the seminary from many quarters Turkey remains unmoved. A public law mandates that only Turkish citizens can be elected Patriarch and the government reserves the right to confirm or veto any patriarchal election. At the present rate it is possible that we may be looking at the last (save perhaps one) Patriarch of Constantinople.

Turkey has never been very good at coming to terms with its own history. It still denies its complicity in the genocide of the Armenians, despite overwhelming and damning evidence accepted by every reputable historian and the entire international community. In fairness everyone wants other people to like their country. As an American I am pained by the low opinion that many throughout the world hold for my country today. But we do not criminalize negative opinions of our own country. In Turkey it can be a crime to criticize the country. And any discussion of certain aspects of its history is beyond the scope of permissible discourse.

Nor is this attitude limited to its Christian population. Turkey has a significant body of Kurds within its borders. And they too have suffered from Ankara’s neglect at best or malevolent attentions at worst. Recently Turkey has strongly hinted at military intervention if any effort is made to establish an independent Kurdistan in what is now Northern Iraq.

All of this of course can not bode well for Turkish aspirations to enter the EU. Another factor against their ambitions is the current tide of anti-immigrant feeling now rising in Europe. If Turkey gained EU membership there would be virtually no way to prevent a human wave of Islamic immigration into the heart of Western Europe. With recent violence and protests highlighting the lack of assimilation on the part of Europe’s already significant population of Islamic immigrants this is something that weighs heavily on the minds of leaders throughout the continent. This brings us back to Turkey’s unwelcome guest. In his previous incarnation as Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope spoke out against Turkey’s admission to the EU. Most observers believe that contributed to Turkey’s decision to put off the papal trip to this year.

But there is also a fear that goes beyond even the light likely to shine on Turkish history. And that is the very real (and legitimate) concern that the Pontiff’s visit could precipitate some form of ugly incident while the eyes of the world are firmly fixed on Turkey. The possibility of violence during the Pope’s visit is significant and Ankara has already confirmed that security will be very heavy. Nor am I just referring to an assassination attempt on the Pope and or the Patriarch (God forbid!) While one may feel a certain concern for the Pope’s safety he at least will be moving under a curtain of heavily armed police and security agents. This can not be said for Turkey’s embattled Christian population. The danger of some sort of riot or orchestrated violence during the papal visit is quite real. And it is Ankara’s nightmare.

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