Turkey's War on Christians
On Friday, May 29 -- the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople -- I had the privilege of hearing a powerful presentation on the crisis facing Orthodox Christianity in Turkey.
The speaker, Eunice Buhler, laid out in depressing detail the devices by which Turkey, for over one century, has persecuted its Christian population, driving its population down from almost one quarter of the country to less than one-half of one percent.
The story of the genocide of the Armenians is well known, or ought to be. The attempted extinction of the Orthodox Christian Church is less familiar.
Among the tools that Turkish authorities have used are:
- Pogroms against Christians;
- Seizure of the property of the Ecumenical Patriarchate;
- Determination of who is the patriarch by, among other measures, making Turkish citizenship a legal requirement;
- Closure of seminary at which Turkish men could train for the priesthood;
- General unequal application of the laws.
Of central concern is the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as leader of the Orthodox Church worldwide. Turkish policies jeopardize its influence and independence and, by extension, the capacity of the Church itself. In particular, Turkish authorities have done nothing to return Hagia Sophia to the Patriarchate so it can once again be a Christian church rather than a museum or mosque. Ms. Buhler's phrasing, "Turkey has progressed from systematically murdering Christians in the past to murdering Christianity today."
The plight of the Orthodox Church is a challenge to the members of all religious denominations, in particular Christians. The commandment to love one another surely calls us to solidarity with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Furthermore, the strategies and tactics of the Turkish state provide a blueprint and precedent for other repressive states to weaken, marginalize and control religions in their territory.
What can be done? Western governments can increase diplomatic pressure on Turkey to protect religious freedoms. Such pressure could bear some fruit, but not much can be expected from it. The more public or heavy-handed the pressure, the greater the risk that Turkish authorities would become more oppressive, at least in the short run. More fundamentally, though, geopolitical considerations would prevent the West from taking political actions that would risk alienating Istanbul.
The response to the situation, therefore, must come primarily from the sphere of civil society. Individuals and private groups, especially other religious denominations, must attend to the threat facing the Orthodox Church, must communicate their moral and financial support, must encourage Turkey when it takes significant steps to protect religious freedom, and must seek to shame it to the extent that it continues to act oppressively.