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The response of the Turkish government and people to the recent massacre of three Christians by Islamic fundamentalists will be an omen for the future of religious tolerance in that country and, more importantly, for Islam as a whole.
On April 18, two Turks and a German were found with their hands and legs bound and their throats slit at the Zirve publishing house, an organization known for its efforts to distribute Bibles in this 99 percent Muslim country. The publishing house also served as a meeting house for Christian prayer groups. Ten people have been arrested in connection with the crime.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said the killings were “an attack against Turkey’s stability, peace, and tradition of tolerance.”
For a non-Muslim in Turkey, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see such a tradition in practice. Last year, a teenage gunman killed an Italian missionary priest. In January, an assassin gunned down an Armenian journalist, apparently because of his well-known Christian beliefs. All of this took place, of course, in the most tolerant Islamic country in the world. At least on the books, Turkey is a secular state.
Most Turks are embarrassed by such extremism. Upon arriving inIstanbul last year to report on Pope Benedict’s pastoral and ecumenical visit to Turkey, I asked a taxi driver whether the pope would be safe. “We don’t like the pope,” he said, “but we’re not going to kill him. Our brother Ali Agca shot the Polish pope in 1981, and that was bad for Turkey.”
It was an honest answer, I suppose, but not very reassuring. I would have preferred to hear an outright condemnation of violence, an argument for peaceful Islam, or a promise that extremists were a dying breed. Not once during my week in Turkey, did anyone, from any social class, offer me that kind of reasoned assurance.
But that can change. Because the Turkish people have tasted some of the freedoms a secular state protects, they are in a unique position within the Muslim world to contribute to religious tolerance and world peace.
Their success will depend to a large extent on the current struggle over Turkish national identity. On Monday, secularists took to the streets in record number (media reports estimated the crowds were over one million) chanting, “Turkey will not become Iran.” The unprecedented activism is a response to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on nominating his number two man, Abdullah Gul, as Turkey’s next president. Opponents fear Mr. Gul will act in cahoots with the Islamist Justice and Development Party that already holds a significant Parliamentary majority. Together, they could work to introduce Sharia-based law.
The protesters are making a monumental mistake if they think the struggle for Turkish national identity will be determined by street demonstrations or any other form of political activism alone. In a country where 99 percent of its citizens consider themselves Muslim, only religious arguments against fanaticism will be strong enough to counter the religious ideology of the fanatics and the masses of young people whom they influence. Turkey needs moderate Muslim clerics and moderate Muslims in general to defend political freedom and religious tolerance from a religious point of view.
Some Western critics and readers of this column will immediately dismiss this proposal as impossible because the Koran itself is ambivalent, at best, about religious freedom and the nature of peace. But there is a growing group of scholars who see a slow, but major theological renewal within Islam as very possible. In fact, they say it is already happening in countries like Turkey and in second and third generation immigrants through contact with the West. While the Koran warns against “interpretation” and leaves no room for the development of doctrine, the fact is, in practice we are seeing development in the religious belief and practice of many Muslims. There are millions of self-proclaimed “moderate Muslims” who point to the Koran as justification for their position. Admittedly, these more tolerant passages to which they always refer (primarily in the first part of the Koran) contradict other passages that, for example, call for the killing of all infidels (non-Muslims). But moderates don’t seem to mind the internal division of their “sacred” text and as long as they choose the former passages over the latter, I don’t think non-Muslims should mind either.
The best way for moderate Turks to foment Islamic renewal is through the defense of Christians in their own backyard. The current restrictions against Christian schools, the closing down of Orthodox seminaries, the denial of legal status to Christian church entities, and above all the increasing violence against Christians themselves, should be the shame of all moderate Muslims. It also happens to be the most immediate threat to the future of a secular Turkish state.
If you are interested in the future of world peace, keep your eye on Turkey.
God bless, Father Jonathan
• E-mail Me at FatherJonathan@foxnews.com
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