Hope is high for man who may become Turkey's first Christian MP for 50 year
ISTANBUL // A 47-year-old former refugee has a chance to become the first Christian member of the Turkish parliament in half a century.
If he succeeds in parliamentary elections on Saturday, Erol Dora, an attorney, could also go some way in adjusting the electoral status quo in this mostly Muslim nation that critics say does not provide its religious minorities with fair representation.
"There has not been a Christian MP since the 1960s," Mr Dora said in an interview from his campaign in the south-eastern city of Mardin this week. "I don't think that's normal."
Mr Dora is a Syriac Christian, an ancient community that numbers about 13,000 in Turkey and that still uses Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
The region around Mardin is the traditional home of Syriac Christians, but many fled to Istanbul or western Europe when Turkey's south-east became a battleground between Kurdish rebels and the government in the 1980s.
If elected, Mr Dora has promised to speak for Syriac Christians in the national assembly and "work for democracy as a Turkish citizen".
Mr Dora is running as an independent backed by the Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, Turkey's main Kurdish party.
Political parties in Turkey must gain at least 10 per cent of the national vote to enter parliament, but that clause does not apply to independent candidates.
The BDP, which holds 5 to 6 per cent in the polls, hopes to send deputies to Ankara by having them run as independents.
In Mardin, a region with an ethnic and religious mix of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Yezidis, Mr Dora has a chance of being among the five deputies the province will send to Ankara.
His life story resonates with voters in the region. Mr Dora was born in a Syriac village that was evacuated by the military during the fighting between rebels and soldiers in the 1990s.
The village's inhabitants, like millions of other people in the region of south-eastern Anatolia, lost their homes and became refugees in their own country.
Mr Dora, who lives and works in Istanbul, said he would like to rebuild his village once the fighting between rebels and the army was over for good.
"We want this war to end," he said.
Mr Dora claims his background is nothing special in this region known for its ethno-religious diversity.
"We have been living together for millennia here. If people were prejudiced against Christians, I would not have been able to run," he said.
His candidacy is seen by some as an extraordinary development for Turkey, where national unity is prized above cultural diversity.
Christian and Jewish communities number about 150,000 people in a country of roughly 74 million. The small voting base, however, is not the only reason non-Muslim deputies have been rare.
Although it is a secular republic, the Turkish government has traditionally regarded Christians and Jews with suspicion because of alleged links to hostile foreign powers.
Nationalists view Islam as the force that binds the nation. Political reforms inspired by Turkey's bid to join the European Union have improved the situation for non-Muslims in recent years, but those improvements have yet to be translated into a larger minority presence in government.
Sahin Alpay, a political scientist and newspaper columnist, said: "We have had extremely few non-Muslims" in parliament. An election victory for Mr Dora in Mardin, he said, "would be significant".
The last Christian member of Turkish parliament was Berc Sadak Turan, an Armenian politician in the 1960s.
Cefi Kamhi, a Jewish businessman who served as a deputy in Ankara in the 1990s, was the last non-Muslim politician in parliament.
Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, has a Jewish candidate, Mari Gormezano, on its ballot in Istanbul for the upcoming election.
Yet Ms Gormezano's low rank on the CHP list means it is unlikely she will enter parliament.
Antoni Vilkosevski, a Catholic politician of Polish descent, is running for the People's Voice Party, or HAS, an offshoot of an Islamist party.
Mr Vilkosevski has virtually no chance of entering parliament, as the HAS party will stay well below 10 per cent, Adil Gur, head of the polling firm A&G, told the Vatan daily this week.
Some observers say Turkey's main political parties still have a long way to go in opening up to religious diversity.
Reha Camuroglu, a deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and a member of the Alevi ethnic minority, said his party had turned its back on minorities.
Turkey has an estimated population of 15 million to 20 million Alevis, followers of a branch of Shiite Islam who are sometimes viewed as heretics by members of the country's Sunni majority.
At the last election in 2007, the AKP fielded several Alevi candidates.
For Saturday's election, however, the party reckoned that this strategy was "no longer profitable", Mr Camuroglu said. The party also declined to let him run for re-election.
The CHP is fielding more than 40 Alevi candidates in viable positions, according to news reports. Even so, Mr Camuroglu said the main problems of religious minorities remain unsolved.
"It's just tactics, just window dressing," he said.