TURKEY’S DWINDLING CHRISTIANS FEAR END IS APPROACHING
Oct 15 2010
Andreas Zografos left Turkey in 1974 amid economic and political
turmoil to find work in Europe, but he always knew he would return
“The ties of this land are strong. I was drawn back by the blue of
the sea, the color of the sky,” he says. A Greek Orthodox Christian,
Zografos, now 63, and his wife today tend to the 19th-century St.
Nicholas Church, where his grandfather painted vibrant icons, on
Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek, an island off the Ä°stanbul coast.
Heybeliada was home to a few thousand ethnic Greeks when he left,
Zografos says. About 25 remain, part of a dwindling community of 2,500
Greeks in Ä°stanbul, the capital of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine
Empire until the Ottoman conquest of 1453. Ä°stanbul, a city of 13
million Muslims, is still the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew,
spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox. “We are proud
our patriarch is still here in the land where our faith began. This
is holy land,” Zografos says.
But vast numbers of Christians have left their ancient homeland and
now make up just 0.13 percent of Turkey’s population of 73 million
people. Some 60,000 Armenians and 15,000 Syriac Orthodox also live in
Turkey, and there are much smaller communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses,
Roman Catholics, Chaldeans and others.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the secular Constitution. Turkey
spurns the outright religious rule of some Muslim states. Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to expand rights for
religious minorities to meet the standards of the European Union,
which Turkey aspires to join. But many Christians say they still
face deep-rooted discrimination. Non-Muslims are tacitly banned from
jobs in the state bureaucracy and security forces. Zografos finished
primary school and began working at a hairdresser’s at age 13. After
finishing military service at age 22, he could not earn enough to
provide for his family. “It is hard for Greeks to find work. I knew I
had to leave. There was never a chance to make a living here,” he says.
Sporadic violence The EU has said that applications to open places of
worship by non-Muslim citizens are generally refused in Turkey and
that some groups say security forces monitor their worship. Attacks
against Christians are infrequent but sensational. In 2006, a Roman
Catholic priest was murdered. Earlier this year, a Catholic bishop was
stabbed to death at his home in southern Turkey. The bishop’s driver
was arrested, and the Vatican said the murder was not politically
motivated. Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink was slain in 2007.
Three members of a Bible-publishing firm were tortured and killed
the same year. No one has been convicted in these cases.
Most of Turkey’s Christians fled in the upheaval of World War I and
the ensuing War of Independence. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians
were massacred and 1.5 million Greeks deported in a population
exchange. A treaty with Western powers in 1923 allowed Ä°stanbul’s
non-Muslim communities to retain special education and property
rights. But decades of economic discrimination and sporadic violence
reduced Christians to less than 200,000 by 1955, according to state
statistics. Since then, the decline has been precipitous. Today 60
percent of Turkey’s Greeks are over the age of 55, according to the
Political tensions Zografos’s departure coincided with a peak in
tensions between Greeks and Turks in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus
in response to a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup, though he says he
was spared any fallout and left solely for economic reasons.
Most Syriacs, who speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus,
abandoned their homeland in southeastern Turkey more recently, fleeing
violence between separatist Kurds and the Turkish army in the 1990s.
Turkey has confiscated billions of dollars worth of property belonging
to Armenian and Greek foundations when they can no longer fill
schools or churches. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled
these seizures are illegal. Since 1971 the government has also kept
closed the Holy Theological School of Halki, perched on Heybeliada’s
highest ridge, called the Hill of Hope. Without a seminary, Bartholomew
struggles to dispatch enough clergy to celebrate mass at the churches
that do still operate.
At St. Nicholas, Zografos often fills in as a sexton, helping the
priest perform basic rituals for the dozen or so elderly worshippers
who still come to pray. He remembers Sundays in the 1960s when the
congregation would fill the basilica-style church and spill into the
narthex. “If I don’t do this, then who will?” says Zografos, who says
he is not religious but feels a duty to serve his community. “Soon
there will be just one or two of us left on the island. I don’t see
anything else but the end.” Reuters
From: A. Papazian