Recently the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis will travel to Turkey Nov. 28-30, the official purpose for which is largely ecumenical. He’ll visit Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on the feast of St. Andrew, considered their patron in much the same way Catholics regard St. Peter as the first pope.
The trip is also a way for Francis to express concern for violence in the region unleashed by the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate, and to expand his outreach to the Islamic world.
But what’s not yet clear is how much of a push Francis will make on another front: An increasingly virulent anti-Christian climate in Turkey, which tends to simmer constantly until it boils over into lethal violence.
Turkey is officially secular. But sociologically it’s an Islamic society, with a population of 76 million that’s 97 percent Muslim. There are just 150,000 Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox. Only the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities are recognized, so other forms of Christianity operate in a gray zone – not quite illegal, but not quite fully legitimate either.
Despite Turkey’s reputation for moderation, there’s a strong ultra-nationalist current, with beachheads in the security services and the military, which sees the West and Christianity as eternal foes. Christians report various forms of harassment, including difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches, surveillance, unfair judicial treatment, and discrimination in housing and employment.
In 2009, the normally diplomatic Bartholomew told “60 Minutes” that he feels “crucified” by a state that wants to see his Church die out.
This undercurrent of disdain is reflected, among other things, in conspiracy theories about Christianity that have become staples of the Turkish best-seller lists.
In 2001, journalist Ergun Poyraz published Six Months among the Missionaries. He wrote, “A big missionary army has invaded our country,” and added an ominous warning: “This land has been Turkish for thousands of years. Its price was paid with blood. Those dreaming of getting back these lands should foresee paying the same price.”
Ilker Cinar, who claimed to be a convert to Christianity who led a Protestant mission for ten years before returning to Islam, published a highly popular book in 2005 called I was a Missionary, the Code is Decoded. He warned that Christians are scheming to “reconquer” Turkey, working in league with the Kurds and their militant faction PKK.
It’s also become common to see public assaults on symbols of Christian identity. In December 2013, the Anatolian Youth Association, a youth branch of the pro-Islamic Felicity Party, launched a campaign against any public celebration of Christmas, including burning Santa Claus dolls and threatening retaliation against anyone who put up Christmas decorations.
Reflecting that climate, physical attacks on Christians have become increasingly common and bold.
In January 2006, a Protestant church leader named Kamil Kiroglu, a Muslim convert to Christianity, was beaten unconscious by five young men. In February 2006, a well-known Italian Catholic missionary, Rev. Andrea Santoro, was gunned down by a 16-year-old Muslim in the small city of Trabzon.
In January 2007, a prominent Turkish journalist of Armenian descent named Hrant Dink, a Protestant, was assassinated in Istanbul. In April 2007 in Malatya, three Protestant Christian missionaries, two Turks and one German, were tortured, stabbed and strangled.
In June 2010, Bishop Luigi Padovese, the Catholic Apostolic Vicar for Anatolia and president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, was assassinated by his driver. Witnesses reported that the killer shouted afterwards, “Allahu Akbar, I have killed the greatest Satan!”
As recently as earlier this year, there were accusations that elements in the Turkish military were aiding Muslim extremist groups that carried out lethal assaults on Armenian Christians in northwest Syria near the Turkish border.
To date, there has been little momentum to explore the ways in which this violence has been fueled by an environment in which anti-Christian prejudice is not only acceptable, but almost fashionable.
In December 2011, a columnist for the Turkish daily Zaman complained that “the Vatican is not doing anything” to ensure the investigation of Padovese’s death “is handled in a serious manner.” If the Vatican would take a more aggressive stance, he wrote, it would enhance “the well-being of all non-Muslims” and offer “a huge contribution to the promotion of human rights and freedom of religion in Turkey.”
Pope Francis has amassed tremendous political capital in the Islamic world, in part because of his friendships with Muslims in Argentina, and in part because of his May outing to the Holy Land where he made an impromptu stop at the barrier separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, a move that was perceived as a gesture of solidarity with Palestinian suffering.
The question is whether he’ll spend some of that earned capital while in Turkey to press President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to combat this anti-Christian hostility.
If he does, we may not know right away. Whenever a pope travels to a country whose ruler has a dubious human rights record, a smiling photo-op is often the price to be paid in order to lay down a challenge behind the scenes. That was the deal John Paul II made, for instance, when he visited Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and so on.
Certainly the Christians Francis is coming to visit are hoping he’ll do something similar during his Nov. 28 meeting with Erdoğan at Ankara’s new presidential palace, a sprawling $350 million structure denounced by critics as both an environmental blight and a symbol of Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies.
The drama of Francis’ Turkey trip is partially contained in how clearly Erdoğan gets the message: “When it comes to the fate of Christians and other minorities, we are watching … and we’ll tell the world what we see.”