Silent little churches in the land of St. Paul
by Geries Othman
For many pilgrims in Turkey, the Pauline Year is an opportunity to find in Tarsus, Antioch, and Ephesus the stones of an ancient past, and the laborious present of a Christian community quenched to a glimmer and marginalized by secularism and by Islam. But they are also a small seed, where it is possible to discover the very mission of St. Paul, unity and charity.
Ankara (AsiaNews) – Since last June, Turkey has seen a constant flow of faithful from various countries around the world: Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, and also from Latin America, Korea, and even Japan. The many pilgrims want to walk in the “footsteps of St. Paul,” revisiting the places where the Apostle – the 2,000th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this year – was born, lived, and fought and suffered for the Christian communities that had just arisen. Not a day goes by without groups of the faithful passing through Tarsus, Antioch, Ephesus. But too often the eyes of these pilgrims see nothing but stones in the shadow of the many minarets, so that they go home with a strong sense of dismay, if not the conviction that there are no more Christians in Turkey, but only and exclusively Muslims.
In November of 1939, Angelo Roncalli (who would become Pope John XXIII) was the apostolic delegate in Istanbul. In his “Journey of a Soul,” he wrote: “There is very little left of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ here in Turkey. Just relics and seeds.” Nothing seems to have changed over the past 70 years: the eyes of the pilgrims see only the stones, as glorious as these are, of a past that is no more; churches transformed into museums, mosques, schools, or libraries.
A Church reduced to silence
The dismay is all the more profound if one considers that until a century ago, Turkey had the most numerous Christian community in the Middle East. Today it is the smallest. Of the approximately 2 million Christians at the beginning of the 20th century, in fact, only 150 thousand have remained, almost all of them concentrated in the large cities of Istanbul, Smyrna, and Mersin, the rest of them scattered in Anatolia in tiny communities. Almost half of them are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, then come the Catholic communities, about 30,000 in all, mainly Latin, but also Armenian, Syrian, and Chaldean. There are 20,000 Protestants of various denominations, followed by Syro-Orthodox, about 10,000, only a tenth of the number present a century ago in the southern region of Tur Abdin. The Greek Orthodox of Bartholomew I have been reduced to about 5,000. Among the 70 million inhabitants, then, the Christians represent a tiny number, almost ridiculous, less than one percent. It is a Church that is truly smaller than the smallest of seeds.
The disappearance of the Church has gone hand in hand with the reduction of all the beneficial institutions managed by the Church (hospitals, hospices, schools), both because of the steady loss of personnel and because of the economic burdens imposed by the state. There are many obstacles that make life difficult for the Christian communities in a country that, in spite of everything, describes itself as secular: the absence of legal personality; the restriction of property rights; interference in the management of foundations; the impossibility of forming the clergy; the police surveillance directed at Christians. Turkish legislation is complicating life for the Catholic Church. A statute has still not been found that would permit it to have legal existence, and therefore a voice in society. And as for religious freedom, if it is true that a Turkish directive in December of 2003 authorized the changing of religious identity, or the passage from one confession to another, on the basis of a simple declaration, the reality of the facts demonstrates that social and media pressure has much greater power.
It’s enough to think of Ankara. The capital of the country should be the stronghold of state secularism, and yet the 250 Christian families who are there, strewn among the six million inhabitants, feel constrained to give non-Christian names to their own children, so that they are not made fun of in school and are not discriminated against in the workplace. They conceal their faith even in their own homes, and do not display on the wall any sacred images or symbols that could disturb peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. They suffer every time they go to the cemetery, seeing the tombs of their loved ones repeatedly profaned, the crosses destroyed, the gravestones defaced. They feel themselves scrutinized from head to foot by the plainclothes policemen at the entrance of the church, when they just want to go inside to light a candle. So these are Christian communities reduced to silence, ass Cardinal Roncalli wrote so clearly: “A modest minority that lives at the surface of a vast world with which we have only superficial contact.” A Church that limps, that struggles, a church in fear.
Growing in unity
Life is not easy for those in Turkey who proclaim themselves to be Christian, and it is precisely for these faithful that, on the occasion of the 2,000th anniversary of St. Paul, the TEC (Turkish Episcopal Conference) published a pastoral letter with the purpose of reawakening within the Christians of Turkey their awareness of their own identity, and of giving them courage and openness. Luigi Padovese, bishop of Anatolia and president of the TEC, expresses his hopes: ” I expect that the faithful living in Turkey, by reading the writings and life of St. Paul, will be able to reinforce and love their Christian identity more. The Pauline letters show the great effort confronted by the saint in order to bring the message of Christ to the most inaccessible areas of Turkey. If one thinks of the dangers, the enormous spiritual strength that animated the apostolate of Paul in his travels from one region to another, one cannot help but be struck, undergoing a genuine in interior transformation. My greatest desire is to see in the pilgrim who comes to Anatolia, and the Christians present here, the awareness that Christianity is not only a geographical or hereditary factor, but also a mission, a commitment, a difficulty. By being aware of this, a stronger Christian matures.”
But how is it possible not to feel isolated, lost, overwhelmed, in a world that unjustly considers you a foreign element, obnoxious, burdensome, threatening?
They are fortunate who are able to rely upon a community, fortunate to find an open church to which they can go and in which they can experience the sense of belonging that helps them to move forward. This is why the pastors of the Church insist on unity. Again in the pastoral letter of the TEC from last year, we read: “before being Catholic, Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, Chaldean, Protestant, we are Christians. This is the basis of our duty to be witnesses. We must not allow our differences to generate mistrust and harm the unity of faith; we must not permit those who are not Christian to withdraw from Christ on account of our divisions.”
And it is precisely this that the Christians in Turkey are seeking to live. In Antioch, Mersin, Smyrna, Trabzon, Istanbul, or Ankara, the meager little group of faithful that gathers on Sunday in the city’s only church – Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic, or Chaldean – pray, sing, gather around the Eucharist from which they draw of the strength to be Christians, and then, at the end of the Eucharistic celebration, they have tea together, they chat a little, they reflect on their faith and on their lives. They are tiny seeds destined to grow.
And now that Christmas is approaching, without any significant external signs, they are organizing to decorate the church, to build the creche, to prepare a Nativity play, to enrich midnight Mass with a choir, to offer a banquet for the poorest, after the fasting during all of Advent, according to Orthodox tradition. It is a dialogue of works, a daily fraternity made up of simple gestures, which may be simple and even banal, but make it easier to believe, to continue to hope against all hope.