Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Orthodox worshippers, seen here at a mass at St George Cathedral in Istanbul, do not want to be 'second-class citizens', says their leader.
Orthodox worshippers, seen here at a mass at St George Cathedral in Istanbul, do not want to be 'second-class citizens', says their leader.

Turkey reaches out to its minorities in another step for writing new constitution

Leaders of Turkey's small Christian community hail historic meeting with Turkish lawmakers, but the visit also highlights the challenge of securing rights of minorities in this mostly Muslim nation.

ISTANBUL // Leaders of Turkey's small Christian community have hailed as historic a meeting with Turkish lawmakers to discuss the country's new constitution, but the visit also highlighted the challenge of securing rights of minorities in this mostly Muslim nation.

"A new Turkey is being born," said Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of the world's estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians, after addressing a parliamentary panel in Ankara on Monday. "For the first time in the era of the republic, a formal invitation like this has been extended to the minorities," the patriarch said, according his spokesman, Father Dositheos.

The parliamentary panel, known as the Committee for Constitutional Agreement, is gathering views from all sectors of Turkish society in preparation for writing a new constitution, which is due for completion by the end of the year. The current constitution was written under military rule in 1982.

The appearances of Bartholomew I and representatives of Turkey's Syriac Orthodox Christians at a parliamentary hearing this week marked the first time that Christian groups were officially consulted in such a major political project in Turkey. A Jewish group met the lawmakers in December. One political scientist said the significance of their testimonies was difficult to exaggerate.

"It is a matter of political symbolism," said Ioannis N Grigoriadis, who teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara. "It is very, very important," he said in a telephone interview with The National.

But the remarks of Bartholomew I was also a reminder of one of thorniest problems facing the committee: how to safeguard the rights of religious minorities.

In his 45-minute appearance before the committee, the patriarch renewed his call for the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada, an island near Istanbul. The church has been unable to train new priests and bishops since the seminary was closed in 1971.

Bartholomew I, who was born on the northern Aegean island of Gokceada, a centre of the small Greek community in Turkey, is a graduate of the Heybeliada seminary. After meeting the lawmakers in Ankara, the patriarch said he was "leaving with hope". He submitted an 18-page list of demands of the Orthodox Christian community to committee members.

Turkey, a country with a 99 per cent Muslim population, is a secular republic that officially grants equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of their religion. Still, Christians and Jews say they face problems in educating their clergy, protecting property rights and getting government jobs.

In his meeting with the committee, Bartholomew I noted that he was required to arrange his contacts with Turkish officials through the country's foreign ministry, even though he was a Turkish citizen. "We do not want to be second-class citizens," he said.

The Turkish state does not recognise Bartholomew I's role as Ecumenical Patriarch because of fears that the Orthodox Church could try to establish its own version of the Vatican on Turkish soil. Turkish authorities recognise him only as the leader of the small community of about 3,000 to 5,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey.

About 100,000 Christians and 30,000 Jews live in Turkey, a country of 75 million people. Only Jews, Armenians and Greek Orthodox Christians are officially recognised as religious minorities under a 1923 treaty, while groups, such as the roughly 10,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians, whose traditional home is the region around Mardin near the Syrian border, do not have an official status as a church.

At the meeting in Ankara on Monday, Syriac Christians asked for formal recognition as a minority, said Rudi Sumer, a Syriac lawyer who represented the group at the hearing. Mr Sumer told The National by telephone that Syriacs were calling for more cultural rights and for Syriac Orthodox clerics to be paid by the state, just as Turkey's imams are.

"We hope that our views are heard, but we have to wait for the outcome to be sure," Mr Sumer said.

Since coming to power in late 2002, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has widened minority rights, and it recently started a process of returning confiscated real estate to non-Muslim groups. Granting more rights to religious minorities has been one of the main demands of the European Union, which Turkey wants to join.

Mr Grigoriadis said the Turkish government had undertaken "many positive steps" to improve the situation of non-Muslims.

"Until a relatively short time ago, the patriarchate was ignored by Ankara, and now the patriarch is invited by parliament."

tseibert@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National