Monday, November 27, 2006

Benedict to Turkey

I'm not a big fan of George Weigel. I think that his Catholicism is too influenced by his political ideology, as when he jumped through all kinds of hoops to try to defend Bush's Iraqi misadventures. But he has an article in Newsweek that provides essential background reading about the pope's impending trip to Turkey.

Weigel notes that the main purpose of the trip is to build bridges between the western Church and orthodoxy, as Benedict (the successor of Peter) visits Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (the successor of Andrew). Instead, the media is focusing on Muslim opposition, pointing to demonstrations against Benedict in the wake of his Regensburg lecture. But while this is tangential to the main purpose of the visit, Weigel points to a subtle connection to the Regensburg speech: religious liberty for orthodox Christians in Turkey. To put it mildly, Turkey's treatment of this small community is shameful, and this should raise grave questions over Turkey's fitness for EU membership. Weigel documents the following injustices:

* "It is Turkish law, not the canons of the Orthodox Church, that determines who is eligible to be elected ecumenical patriarch, and Turkish law limits the pool of possible candidates to Turkish citizens living in Turkey."

* "The Turkish government closed the patriarchate's seminary, the Theological School of Halki, in 1971, and has refused, despite numerous requests, to reopen it."

* "Turkey will not grant the Ecumenical Patriarchate legal 'personality,' in defiance of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which defined the legal position of minorities in Turkey; this refusal to deal with the patriarchate as a legal "person" (as churches are regarded throughout the West) is, according to the patriarchate memo, 'a major source of many other problems'."

* "The Turkish government blocks work permits for non-Turkish citizens who wish to work at the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

* "The Ecumenical Patriarchate is not permitted to own property; thus it owns none of the churches under its religious jurisdiction."

* "Turkish authorities have also confiscated houses, apartment buildings, schools, monasteries and lands that were once owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate; the state seized the patriarchate's 36 cemeteries, which are now the property of various legal subdivisions of the city of Istanbul; and, earlier this year, the state confiscated the boys' orphanage run by the patriarchate."

* "The Turkish government also determines who may teach in the elementary schools that serve the Orthodox community, and enforces a six-year "approval" process to control the flow of books to Orthodox school libraries."
This gets to the heart of the issue of religious liberty and reciprocity of treatment for other religion in predominantly Muslim countries (when will there be a church near Mecca to match the mosque overlooking the Vatican?). Turkey is about as secular as Muslim countries come, and these restrictions remain. If Benedict's visit manages to highlight the predicament of this ancient struggling community, then it will not have been in vain.

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