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Will Pope's Call for Greater Religious Freedom Be Heard in Secular Turkey?


The visit to Turkey by Pope Benedict XVI was overshadowed by the currently tense relationship between Christians and Muslims even though the original reason for his trip was to heal the nearly 1,000-year-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The pope also came to lend support to Turkey's small Christian minority and he stressed the importance of religious freedom. The question is, how will that be understood in staunchly secular Turkey, as VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Istanbul.

During Pope Benedict's four-day visit his every word was scrutinized in the Turkish media. What did he say about Turkey's role in Europe, did he mean it, would he pray in the Hagia Sophia, once the most famous of Byzantine churches, now a museum. Would he make amends to Muslims for his perceived slight of Islam in a speech in September when the pope quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor, who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman."

The pope's visit was overshadowed by the controversy over that speech and by the general current tensions between Christians and Muslims. But the original purpose of his trip was to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians and to try to heal the rift between the two churches which goes back 1,000 years. Even that can be a sensitive issue, says political analyst Hasan Ulan of Ankara's Bilkent University.

"There is no harm, as far as we are concerned, in him trying to make up his friendship or alliance or whatever with the Patriarchate of Istanbul," he said. "But he should not be doing it in a way that would give rise to suspicion that he's trying to create some sort of Christian alliance against Islam."

Turkey has a small non-Muslim minority - including about 100,000 Christians, mostly eastern Orthodox out of a total population of 70 million. Their right to practice their religion is guaranteed by Turkish law, but there are restrictions, including in running churches or religious schools without specific permission from the state or owning property.

Istanbul-based writer and columnist Mustafa Akyol says Christians do face problems.

"Turkey's Christian minorities have trouble in Turkey, that's a fact. They don't have full religious freedom," he said.

But, adds Akyol, restrictions on church-run religious schools, for example, have nothing to do with pressure by Islamic groups. Rather, he says, they are based on secular principles.

"The state does not want to see private religious schools. Nobody has private religious schools in Turkey," he said. "Muslims can't have their private religious schools either so the Christians don't have it either."

Still many Christians say they feel under greater pressure than their Muslim counterparts - often with a sense of being viewed as an outsider, of not quite belonging.

Greek Orthodox leaders hoped the pope's visit might increase pressure on Turkey to loosen restrictions that might allow the reopening of Istanbul's only Greek Orthodox seminary, which was ordered to close more than 20 years ago.

During his visit, the pope made no mention of specific restrictions, but he did talk about religious freedom.

"Freedom of religion, institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected in practice both for individuals and communities, constitutes for all believers the necessary condition for the loyal contribution to the building up of society," he said.

And, later in the trip the pope and the Orthodox Patriarch signed a declaration, which again spoke of the importance of religious freedom and protection of the religious rights of minorities.

That might be viewed with suspicion in some Turkish political circles, says writer Mustafa Akyol. He says there is, what he calls Turkey's non-liberal secularism. And says Akyol, calls for greater religious freedom are often seen as a threat to the state.

"If it [such calls] is coming from Muslims, it is seen as something which might lead to the infringement of our secularism. When it comes from Christians it is seen as something alien penetrating into Turkish society and it might be funded by the imperialists and so on," he said.

Modern Turkey was founded on a strict principle of secularism. But, says Akyol, it is important to remember that in Turkey secularism does not mean the separation of state and religion, but rather the control of religion by the state.

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