Turkey on the Edge
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
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 Erdog(an'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 President Erdog(an 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 Edward R. Royce is the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee
on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade