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Turkey an Example of Religious Tolerance for 500 years

Turkey is 90 percent Muslim. But in parts of the large cities, there are pockets of people of different faiths. VOA's Miguel Rivera looks at three houses of worship that share adjacent parcels in Kuzguncuk, Istanbul.

Kuzguncuk is an ancient part of Istanbul, the only city in the world that lies in two continents: Asia and Europe. For hundreds of years its been inhabited by Muslims, Jews, and Christians; Turks, Armenians and Greeks.

Kuzguncuk lies on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. There is a church, a mosque, and a synagogue, right beside each other. The priest of the Armenian Orthodox Church, using a key made in 1835, opens the doors to a Christian world within a Muslim one. The priest is one of a few who come from another part of Istanbul to serve the faithful. And when he says “faithful,” he is referring to Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians, who enter this holy place to pray.

"There is no difference between us,” says priest Mehmet Biraz. ”Muslims come in here to light a candle. Yes, Muslims come to pray here. They light the candle and they pray. There is no difference. There is only one God and different paths to that God."

The church leader says cooperating on every level is vital for offsetting the religious negativity he finds in politics. He says ties with others are still strong.

"We have good relations with the neighborhood. We are buying things from this area because we want the local merchants to benefit from our trade. In the political world there is the appearance that religions have problems among themselves. But at the people level, we have no problems among ourselves."

A woman has been living in front of the church and mosque for 20 years.

"Very beautiful… We live in peace here,” she says. ”Everybody loves each other. This mosque on this side, and the synagogue on the other, being so close to each other, shows that Turks really accept different religions and cultures."

It is a fresh late morning, after a rain, and faithful Turks await the arrival of the imam, or hoja -- the religious leader to direct them in midday prayers -- and prepare to pray with ritual cleansing.

The land the mosque sits on was a gift -- from the Armenian Orthodox Church.

For hundreds of years, the Ottoman Empire promoted religious tolerance. Modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal, also known as Ataturk, rejected tying his new government to Islam, even prohibiting the use of traditional clothing in favor of western wear. Religious tolerance was also his government's policy.

"We have good relationships with our neighbors the Armenians and the Greeks. They come to our funerals. We go to their funerals,” says Mahmut Uslu, a worshipper at the mosque. “The Armenian Church is older than ours. Ataturk's new republic had an open door policy to all religions. The Sufi's with Mevlana (known in the Western world as Rumi) also had the same idea hundreds of years before. No matter what country or creed, you can come to our home. Religion is important, not what religion you belong to."

Imam Aydin Vatan has led prayers in the Kuzguncuk mosque for years.

"We are all very close, like the flesh and fingernail. We are all together. Nobody can separate us, Christians, Jews, and Turks."

There are more than 22,000 Jews in Turkey. Most of them live in Istanbul. There was an influx into the Ottoman Empire during the last years of the 15th Century, after Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Jews held senior positions in the sultan's government. Rabbi Cenk Misraji is the highest-ranking Jewish leader in Asian Turkey.

"From the moment of our arrival more than 500 years ago, there has been great religious tolerance in Turkey. We have been able to follow our religion, and open our synagogues wherever we desired. We were free to follow our traditions, practices and Jewish customs," said the rabbi.

There have been some glaring exceptions to the general tolerance of Turkish society. The Christian Armenians say they were the victims of Ottoman genocide in 1915, when thousands died. The Turks deny the accusation. Turks and Kurds, fellow Muslims, have battled each other for years in parts of the country where the Kurds are found.

And there have been terrorist attacks against Jewish targets, most recently in 2003.

But in this neighborhood, there is a different history.

Here in Kuzguncuk, a Muslim -- in a gesture of brotherhood -- designed, constructed, and donated a small park with its delicate fountain in front of the doors of the synagogue, behind, and adjoining, the mosque and the church.