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Over the last few days I have tried to highlight the situation of small Christian communities in Turkey. Having interviewed both common people on the street and power brokers in both the political and religious worlds, it is clear that the precarious status of religious liberty today in Turkey cannot be understood without an in-depth understanding of Turkish history, both ancient and modern, as well as the competing political forces currently at work within the country.
Here’s some good news: Despite the recent violence against Christians, I think Turkey as a nation, and Christian Turks in particular, are in a better place today than in many other moments of their past. Things, as a whole, have gotten better for non-Muslims in Turkey over the last 20 years and there are positive omens for continued development in this direction. The increased contact with Europe and a decent economy have served to increase the still relatively small group of educated opinion leaders. In greater numbers, and with a more unified voice, they are calling to task the excesses in the government, military, and religious institutions.
Not unlike our situation in America, one of Turkey’s greatest obstacles to cultural development (including religious liberty) is the tribal attitude between the two main political parties, accompanied by vitriolic rhetoric meant to mobilize their constituents to political warfare. I have used the term “ideological tribalism” before in relation to American politics, and it applies well here. It looks like this:
The opposition “secularist” establishment accuses the Islamist-friendly AKP majority party of a secret agenda to carry the country toward the same fundamentalist fate as Saudi Arabia. The AKP responds by saying the “secularists” are conspiracy theorists that choose to be blind to the AKP’s four and a half year record of transparent democracy and religious moderation. The secularist movement laughs at the suggestion of purposeful Islamic “moderation.” It claims the only reason the AKP has been slow to impose strict Islamic law on the entire nation is because it has not had the political power to do so.
Meanwhile, the president of the country is a staunch secularist and has vetoed every Islamist movement by the AKP Prime Minister and Parliamentary majority. Another strong deterrent to the AKP’s “secret agenda,” say the secularists, is the strength of the Turkish military. Run by rigidly secular commanders, the military has been looking over the shoulders of AKP politicians and have promised to intervene if necessary. The Turkish military have staged four coups, of one type or another, since 1960.
The truth of the situation, as I see it, lies somewhere in between the two factions’ talking points.
Both factions are reacting to the extreme position of the other. Their mutual ambivalence toward religious liberty is a perfect example of this extremism. The Islamist-friendly AKP party says they are tolerant of non-Muslims, but in fact, they have made it next to impossible for Christians to flourish in Turkey. The shrinking Orthodox community, for example, complains the government has closed down their seminary, refuses them legal status, and interferes in their internal affairs (like the election of their Patriarch). Even more importantly, Christians of all denominations complain the government has done little to squelch the anti-Christian sentiment promoted in public schools, the media, and in mosques (many of which have been built by government funds). The secularists, on the other hand, while lambasting the AKP party for Islamic extremism, are equally intolerant and extreme, I would say, in relation to religious liberty. They reject any public expression of religion. Out of fear of an imposition of Sharia Law, they fight against the use of the veil in public, prayer in school, and even expressions of personal piety of members of the military or other public institutions.
In practice, both parties are hoping to create national unity through the homogenization of the population — a very bad idea. They see diversity as a threat. Strong influences within the AKP party are pushing for the Islamization of the Turkish culture, while the secularists hope to whitewash the public square of all religious expression.
All of this makes me grateful for the tradition and form of religious liberty we enjoy in the United States. Freedom of religion is nothing to take for granted. We must protect vigorously the philosophical principles that keep it afloat in politics and even in public opinion. These include the values of self-determination, free human expression, and above all the inviolable dignity of the human person.
Religion is not a cultural extra. It is an expression of human nature, and when it is subjected or denigrated by the government or restricted by any one religious sect, all of us lose. In this globalized world, what happens in Turkey matters to us all.
God bless, Father Jonathan
• E-mail: FatherJonathan@foxnews.com
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