By Congressman Ed Royce
As a member of NATO and a rare Middle Eastern democracy, Turkey has had a special place in geopolitics. In a region hostile to the idea of separation of church and state, Turkey has been the exception. While Turkey’s experience with democracy and secularism has been tumultuous, recent events are jarring, including its attack on the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Efforts to elect Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s next President troubled secular Turks, many of whom took to the streets. Seen as someone who would turn back the clock on secular reforms, from sexual equality to consuming alcohol, they are right to be wary. The origins of Gul’s ruling AKP party are in fundamentalist Islam. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political mentor and former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan came to power promising to “rescue Turkey from the unbelievers of Europe” and to launch a jihad against Jerusalem. The AKP, some say, has overcome these sentiments, but caution is in order.
The steady rise of a radical brand of Sunni Islam in Turkey is cause for concern. Islamic brotherhoods, such as the Nurcu and the Fettullahci, have used loopholes in secular law to set up extensive private educational systems. These organizations span from preparatory schools, to universities, to business schools, molding much of the leading cultural power, both at the popular and intellectual level. Many secularists believe that these schools are the madrassas of Turkey, and fear that they may be a Trojan horse for radical Islam. Unqualified madrassa graduates are taking up positions in the Turkish civil service.
Religious intolerance seems to have reached new levels in Turkey, as evidenced by massive protests to the Pope’s November visit. In the wake of his controversial comments on the nature of Islam, tens of thousands of Turks rallied against the Pope. So vehement were these protests that the Turkish government deployed 4,000 policemen backed by riot trucks, helicopters, and armored vehicles.
The Ecumenical Patriarch has long been subjected to Turkish misdeeds. Turkey is the only country not to recognize the 2,000-year-old spiritual beacon to millions of Orthodox Christians. Furthermore, Ankara’s demand that the Ecumenical Patriarch be a Turkish citizen threatens the very institution, as less than 2,500 Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey remain, most of them elderly.
The Armenian Patriarchs of Istanbul endure similar hardships, having to abide by the same restrictions for their religious appointments to the Patriarchal see. The Armenian Orthodox community, the largest Christian community in Turkey comprising of 70,000 citizens, today has only 5 Armenian Apostolic priests and 2 Archbishops to oversee the spiritual guidance of its 38 working Armenian churches throughout Turkey. While Turkish authorities deny governmental interference in religious matters, the closure of theological seminaries in 1969 has continued to take its toll on the Armenian Patriarch’s ability to find clergymen who meet the criteria set forth by the Turkish government. Unless Turkey changes its policies, the Patriarchs and their respected Christian communities will disappear in the foreseeable future.
In response to these affronts, I, along with several other members of Congress, signed a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan urging him to end his limits on religious freedom regarding the Ecumenical Patriarch. The practices of the Turkish government, as we expressed to the President, “clearly reflect (his) policy of viewing the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a strictly Turkish institution, when in fact it provides spiritual and moral guidance for millions of believers worldwide.” Congress isn’t alone in its scrutiny of Turkish repression. The State Department’s 2007 Report on Human Rights cites Turkey’s denial of the Ecumenical Patriarchs request to reopen the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeli, which was closed in 1971 when it nationalized all private institutes of higher education. If Turkey is to remain a secular state, it must make serious efforts to stop such behavior, and Congress must continue to press Turkey to follow a path to religious tolerance of peaceful minorities.
Congressman Ed Royce (R) of California is the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.