Turkey 29 Nov 2014 00:00
The largest community of the smallest Christian minority in Turkey has felt neglected for decades and is now facing an uncertain future. The recent visit of Pope Francis to Turkey reinforced anxieties within Izmir's catholic community as he was the first Pope not to visit the tiny but important diocese. Although he had announced his wish to visit the House of Mary in Ephesus, like his predecessors, security problems at the remote shrine made it impossible. Catholics in Izmir are well aware of security problems, but nonetheless they bitterly feel that they are the collateral victims of sectarian tensions in the region.
The history of Christianity in Turkey is almost as old as the Church itself. St. Paul was a native of Anatolia and preached in Ephesus and Miletus. Jesus’ favorite apostle, St. John, the Evangelist who wrote the Apocalypse, is said to have moved to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary. The Apostle’s tomb is near the Ephesus archaeological site and an enormous basilica was built on it. It is ironic that the most vocal opponents of Turkey’s accession to European Union used the “Christian roots” of Europe as an argument against it; the roots of christianity are all in Turkey. It was in Ephesus that the Third Ecumenical Council, the famous “Theotokos Council”, confirmed the Nicene Creed on which the Roman Catholic doctrine is still based, and which declared the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”. Despite this rich history, it is ironic that such Christian roots are usually overlooked in Turkey.
It is commonly said that Turks are 99% Sunni Muslim, and it is true that Turkey’s religious policy take it as a fact. While Orthodox, Armenian and Chaldean Christians are recognized as indigenous religious minorities, the Latin Catholic Christians are not. There are about 35,000 Catholics in Turkey. Most of them are so-called “Levantines”, or descendants of French or Italian expatriates who settled in Ottoman Empire. Izmir, the ancient Smyrna, was their most important city, and it was the most cosmopolitan city in Turkey.
Izmir’s most popular Catholic Church is the Dominican Church of the Holy Rosary, in the traditionally Levantine district of Alsancak. Every Thursday Father Stefano Negro, the parish priest, holds mass for a meager audience of elders.
“It was very different, when the Church was built in 1904,” tells the Dominican friar, a keen historian of his adopted city. “The Church was crowded and rich, because the parishioners considered it a symbol of their identity.
The Great Fire of Smyrna, in 1922, changed everything, along with the birth of the Turkish Republic. However, the turning point was in 1934, when foreigners were not allowed to work anymore in Turkey.” The skilled workers and entrepreneurs who had helped to make Izmir the economic capital of the Ottoman Empire emigrated, and the Catholic flock of Izmir began to dwindle.
The remaining Levantines are descendants of Italian or French families, and all of them feel uncomfortable in the “New Turkey” of President Erdogan. In the traditionally secular republic there was room for many minorities, but the Islamist rhetoric of the current ruling party is underscoring more and more the Sunni Muslim character of the Turkish State.
“This is not my church,” a lady in her 60's whispers before Father Stefano’s mass. “I was born in Karsiyaka, and I went to St. Helen’s Church. It was always open, and on St. Helen’s Day we could bring our cross in procession in the streets and everybody in the neighborhood celebrated with us. Now it’s impossible [and] we keep a low profile, should we irk religious zealots that are increasingly sensitive...”
Another lady, also in her 60s, comments bitterly that “Turkey is going back in time”. However, the others disagree staunchly. “It’s not true, it was never like this! This is something new, especially in Izmir, and it’s not, like some say, because of immigration from the East”.”Truth is,” the first woman comments “that Turks are angry at Europe. They are angry because they feel rejected. They see Islamophobia rising in the same Europe that keeps closing its doors as a Christian club. So they [Turks turn to their religious identity and don’t like us anymore.” The lady, who asks not to be mentioned by name, was born in Izmir, in the elegant Karsiyaka district. When she got married she move to Italy, where she lives with her children and grandchildren. Despite this, she keeps coming to her “hometown”, as she calls it, for several months a year. “But every time it’s more difficult” she laments.
Father Stefano, who came to Turkey in 1976, mostly agrees with the lady. When the military junta ruling the country after the 1980 coup started a fiercely nationalistic policy, the Catholic clergy was seriously worried they would be expelled. To be able to stay, Father Stefano managed to acquire the Turkish citizenship. “But I often have problems," he explains. "Now, every time the police check my ID, they argue about my religion indicated on it. ‘If you are really a Turk, how come that you are not a Sunni Muslim?’”
Things have worsened under Erdogan, with his religious and nationalist rhetoric centered on the Sunni identity of the country. Father Stefano, a witty friar with a sharp humor, turns sad when he talks about the size of his flock. “I can see them dwindle from the number of funerals I celebrate. It’s clear in the mass, where worshipers are all with white hair. There are weddings, sure, but most of them are mixed ones, and children have to be educated in public schools, where religion classes are mandatory, and of course we talk of Sunni religion [in the religious classes].” There are some newcomers to the church, most of whom are Catholic families of NATO military base personnel or technicians working in Izmir.
If the mass is attended by white haired, depressed worshipers, the atmosphere is completely different at the Italian school of Alsancak. Alsancak is an international elementary school and Turkish private kindergarten, managed by Italian nuns and secular teachers, both Italian and Turkish. Sister Roberta also has grey hair, well visible since religious dress is banned in schools, but she has the energy and high spirit of an elite soldier. “We don’t care of habits, we don’t need habits. We are the habits, we are nuns, even when we don’t dress as such” she proudly declares.
The kindergarten children are a merry mixed bunch, from Turkish, Italian, Spanish or American families. They are taught Italian language, but the education is strictly secular. However, Turkish citizens, even those with dual citizenship, cannot attend the elementary school. Only foreign children can continue their education in the nuns’ school and many families resent this. Sister Roberta shows a gift from a local tycoon, a container shipping business magnate, who says to own his success to the education he got at the Catholic nuns’ school.
Sister Roberta cameto Turkey in 1976, like Father Stefano, and she has seen hard times too. Despite various hardships she claims that nuns are highly respected for the education they give in the school, which in better times also hosted orphans and poor children. “We have always been here, since 1887, and we will stay.” After the 1922 fire, when all the foreign nationals had been evacuated on western warships, the youngest nun of the school volunteered to go back, soon followed by others, who kept the catholic presence in Izmir alive. However, Sister Roberta is bitterly disappointed that the Pope didn't come. “Of course we understand the security reasons, and God knows these are hard times. But it’s a bad omen, when it is too dangerous for the Catholic Pope to visit Izmir and the House of Mary in Ephesus.”
Many share her disappointment, and some are in disbelief. On the hill near Ephesus, where the House of Mary attracts pilgrims and tourists, a little crowd are waiting, in vain, for a surprise. “We hoped to see Pope Francis. He’s famous to change program at the last moment, maybe he will come here too. Why he didn't come? We don’t understand!” says the mother of a young boy who is busy lighting candles for the Virgin. They are from Izmir, but they are not Catholic: “We are Turks, we are Muslims and we are proud to be both.” she smiles “But of course we love Meryem Ana, Mother Mary!”
Maybe the dwindling Catholic community in Izmir and the cherished “Christian roots” of Europe could be the key to unlock both Turkey’s accession to Europe and the future of all its minorities.