ISTANBUL, Turkey — As Pope Francis gears up for a three-day visit to Turkey at the end of the week, many in this Middle Eastern country suggest that the elephant in the room — religious freedom — should be at the top of his agenda.
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, traveled to Turkey eight years ago for a visit overshadowed by a controversy generated by a lecture at a university in Regensburg, Germany, linking Muhammad with violence.
While Benedict spent most of his time mending the relationship between the Church and Muslim communities, Pope Francis, on the contrary, arrives with what many observers believe to be basically a free pass.
According to Mine Yildirim, a religious freedom expert with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Pope Francis has enjoyed very amicable coverage from the mainstream media in Turkey.
“Pope Francis has been covered with interest by the local newspapers, mostly with a positive connotation,” she said. “Reports highlight that ‘he kissed a disfigured man in Rome,’ ‘he’s not wearing the red shoes,’ or ‘he doesn’t live in the Apostolic Palace’ ”.
This, Yildirim believes, will allow Francis more room to press the Turkish government on religious freedom issues.
Turkey’s constitution protects the right to freedom of belief, the right not to believe in anything, and the right to change one’s belief.
In practice, however, those who profess a religion different from the Sunni Islam faith promoted by the government are often discriminated against when looking for a job, applying to school, or running for public office. The Turkish ID card includes religion as personal information, so each person’s beliefs become public knowledge.
Yildirim, who spoke with Crux Tuesday, hopes the Argentinian pontiff does something extraordinary during his visit.
“Perhaps he’ll address the issue of Hagia Sofia, so it’s not turned back into a mosque,” she said. (The historic church is a landmark in Istanbul that was built as a Greek Orthodox Church, then turned into a mosque. It currently is a museum.)
“What I hope,” she said, “is that he talks about the Latin Catholic community.”
On a global level, the Latin Church is the largest church in Turkey in communion with Rome, and the only non-Eastern Catholic Church that has independent rituals.
In Turkey, it represents just .1 percent of the total population and has no legal recognition.
No Greek Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, or Jewish temples can be registered as places of worship. They are acknowledged as cultural houses or centers for association. The Latin Church, however, doesn’t have even that possible designation.
Yildrim believes that a reference by Pope Francis might give the Latin Church the leverage needed to retain ownership over properties that have been its places of worship for the past thousand years.
Religious minorities aren’t the only ones limited by the government. “Every religious community faces difficulties, including the Sunni Muslim majority,” she said.
Though it presents itself to the world as a secular government, the Turkish government, through the Religious Affairs Department, spends $1.5 billion exclusively for the Sunni Islam religion.
At the same time, millions of Alevis, an Islamic minority that represents 10 percent of the population, as well as Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths, the remaining 2 percent of the population, have no economic support from the state.
According to its latest annual report, the bureaucratic giant that’s the Religious Affairs Department, with its own news service and a dedicated trade union, employs more than 100,000 civil servants, including 60,000 imams and 10,000 muezzins. All of these employees are trained, hired, and fired by the state.
At the institution’s headquarters in Ankara, a city that will be visited by Pope Francis on Friday, state-employed astronomers calculate prayer times around the world. State-educated theologians pore over the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad in the library and issue the religious rulings known as fatwas.
The department writes the sermons for the Friday Prayer said in mosques across the country as well as the textbooks for the religious instruction that is mandatory in schools.
Fatih Ceran, external affairs representative from the Journalism and Writers Center of the Fethullah Movement, told Crux that although much has improved on matters of religious freedom, many state officials still engage in discrimination.
In recent days, for example, a city mayor announced that because of Israeli military action in Jerusalem, a synagogue that was being restored would be turned into a museum instead. The announcement was never formalized, yet for Ceran, a Muslim, this was only one of many recurring violations to citizens’ rights.
“Their rights of freedom should be guaranteed like mine are,” he said. “[This case] shows a mindset that’s not contributing to peace.”
“If you want to appeal to the more orthodox citizens, criticizing Israel seems to work,” he said.
Ceran said that much can still be done related to religious freedom. “I would say that, if you compare Turkey with Middle East countries, we have far more religious freedom,” he said. “But if you compare it with international standards, there’s still a long way to go.”
Yildirim of the Helsinki Committee agreed. “The good intentions and goodwill discourse coming from political leaders does not match what they’ve concretely done,” she said. “There’s still a long way to go.”
Pope Francis will be the fourth pontiff in modern history to visit Turkey. Paul VI visited the country in 1967, John Paul II did so in November 1979, and Benedict XVI came to Turkey in 2006.
Three of these four papal trips have been timed to coincide with the feast of St. Andrew, who is considered by the Orthodox to be the brother of St. Peter and the patron saint of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
In every case, the popes have traveled to Turkey on the invitation of the Patriarch, considered the first amongst equals by the Orthodox Churches.