Turkish Christians Face Hurdles to Keeping the Faith

Much of the attention this week is swirling around the Pope and Turkey's Muslims. But Turkey's religious minorities have their own challenges, especially Christians. They make up less than half a percent of the country's population.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On the second day of his visit to Turkey, Pope Benedict XVI turns pilgrim. He's visiting one of the most revered sites of Christianity: the house where legend has it that Mary - the mother of Jesus - lived out her last days. Yesterday, as the pope embarked on his mission to this overwhelmingly Muslim country, he made conciliatory statements aimed at easing Christian-Muslim tensions. But he also stressed the need for religious freedom in the staunchly secular country of Turkey.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In Benedict's remarks to Turkish officials yesterday, the underlying theme was that this land is dear to Christians, too. Istanbul used to be Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire. But today, the number of Christians in Turkey is estimated at about 100,000.

(Soundbite of music)

POGGIOLI: It's Sunday mass at St. Anthony's Church in the center of the city. The priest preaches in English and nearly all the faithful are foreigners. At the nearby Catholic church of Santa Maria Traperez(ph), Father Reuben Tierrablanca-Gonzalez(ph) says missionary work is impossible in Turkey.

Father RUEBEN TIERRABLANCA-GONZALEZ (Santa Maria Traperez Church): For Muslim people, for lay government, missionary means Proselytism.

POGGIOLI: Proselytism is banned here, and like all priests, Father Reuben is not allowed to wear clerical dress in public.

Father TIERRABLANCA-GONZALEZ: All the religions have to be quiet.

POGGIOLI: Turkey's secular state considers all non-Muslim institutions as foreign. They don't have legal status. There are very strict restrictions on property ownership. Confiscation of church buildings is common and schools to train clergy are banned from Turkish territory. The Christian flock is dwindling. Father Reuben's church is the oldest parish in Istanbul. One hundred years ago it had 12,000 parishioners. Today, it has 17.

Just a few days before the pope's arrival, two Turkish men who converted to Christianity went on trial, charged under Turkey's Article 301 for having allegedly insulted Turkishness. The law, one of the pillars of the Turkish state, has been used also against Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. It has been widely condemned by the European Union as a severe limit to freedom of speech. Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who deals with Turkey's application for E.U. membership, says the concept of Turkish national identity is too exclusive.

Mr. JOOST LAGENDIJK (Member of the European Parliament, Netherlands): There is a very strong feeling in Turkey of sort of unity government, unity citizenship. And in that concept, the idea of ethnic or religious minorities doesn't fit in.

POGGIOLI: It's not just Christian minorities who are discriminated against. The Alevis, considered one of the most liberal sects in Islam and estimated at one quarter of the Turkish population, are not even officially recognized as a religion. They don't pray in mosques, but in prayer halls knows as yans. They don't receive any financing from the state, which funds all mosques and Imams.

Isitin Dowan(ph), president of the Yan Foundation says the Alevis are Muslims, and their Islam is based on uniquely Turkish foundations.

Mr. ISITIN DOWAN (President, Yan Foundation): They did not understand Koran as the Arabs have understood. And especially, they understand the goal of women in Arab society at that time. The Turks did not accept this view of Islam's approach to women.

POGGIOLI: In fact, in Alevi rituals, women have as prominent a place as men.

(Soundbite of singing)

POGGIOLI: Men and women sit on the floor in a circle, praying together, singing and listening to an elder of the community explaining the precepts of the Koran. The prayer hall is inside a nondescript building on a side street in an outlying suburb of Istanbul. These faithful recall the early Christians who had to hide their faith in the catacombs.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Istanbul.

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