By Michael Huffington
Last night on 60 Minutes there was a 14 minute segment about Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
It was an honest look at religious freedom (or lack thereof) inside one of America’s military allies. It is a story that should be seen by the leaders of the free world as well as people of faith. The Ecumenical Patriarch of 300,000,000 Orthodox Christians (of which I am one) is similar to the Pope of the Catholic Church. And yet he is a treated as a second-class citizen in his own country where he was born. The Orthodox «Vatican» is called the Phanar and it is located on less than an acre of land in the city of Istanbul. There have been so many threats of violence that they have had to use barbed wire and cameras to protect the priest inside the property. The last century has seen the Orthodox Christian population diminish from 2,000,000 in 1900 to less than 4,000 in all of Turkey today. Most were forced out. Yet this geographical area of the world was mostly Christian a thousand years ago.
Over the past 20 years, Turkey has been trying to gain admittance to the European Union. Turkey is not a European country. Most of its land mass is in Asia Minor. It is not ethnically, socially, culturally or religiously European. Yet the U.S. government (especially under President George W. Bush) has lobbied the Europeans forcefully to admit Turkey into the EU because Turkey is our military ally, and the American military and political establishment didn’t want them falling into the Russian or the Iranian sphere of influence.
I visited Istanbul in 1972, and Ankara in the 1980’s when my company had an office there. The Republic of Turkey was founded less than a century ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on October 29, 1923. His government changed the local culture from an Islamic dominated society into one that was modern, democratic and secular. One of the major changes was that women were given the right to vote. They were also given the freedom and encouraged not to wear the veil. But today Turkey is returning to its Islamic traditions under the government of Prime Minister Erdogan who took office in 2003. He belongs to the Justice and Development Party which was founded by former members of an Islamist political party. Whereas I never saw women wearing the long black burqas during my visits, I did notice in the 60 Minutes segment that women are now doing so. (Under the Shah of Iran burqas were banned by law, but under the law of the Islamic Republic of Iran they are required.) Will that someday happen in Turkey also?
It is clear that Turkey is a different place than it was in 1987 when it originally made its application to accede into the EU. If Turkey were ever allowed to join the European Union, the consequences would be reminiscent of those that happened to the city of Troy when it allowed the Trojan Horse inside its fortified walls. The Muslim culture would ultimately dominate Christian and secular Europe. As can be seen in Turkey today that country does not welcome or protect other religions within its borders. They have seized Orthodox Church properties, closed churches, monasteries and schools. If one walks with a priest down the streets of Istanbul it is not a comfortable feeling. Many priests will change out of their church clothes and wear business suits once they leave the confines of the Phanar. This is not religious freedom as we know it in the west. While we welcome people of all faiths in America we cannot be so naïve as to expect all countries to do the same. But we cannot allow their cultural mores to snuff out our religious freedoms or the freedom of women to have equal rights.
France and other European countries rightfully have serious and well-founded reservations about admitting Turkey into the EU. If Turkey were admitted any Turkish citizen could travel, work and reside in any EU country because they would no longer need a visa. There are Islamist fundamentalist in Turkey as there are in Iraq, Iran, Egypt and other Muslim countries. This would be a security nightmare. The American Administration should butt out of this issue and let the Europeans make their own decisions.
This brings me back to the interview with Patriarch Bartholomew. At the end of the interview the Patriarch says that he feels crucified in his own country. It is clear that over the last century the church has been crucified in that there are only 4,000 Orthodox Christians left out of a population that totals 72,000,000 people. In the Bible Luke 9:5 says «And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.» It is probably past time for the Patriarchate to leave its homeland. The Turks have made it unbearable to live and work there. There are many other countries in this world that would welcome the Patriarch and the several dozen priests that remain. And why should the next Ecumenical Patriarch of 300,000,000 souls have to be a Turkish citizen just because the Turkish government «won’t allow» any other citizen of any other country to hold that position? A government should not hold a veto right over the spiritual leader of any religion. Orthodoxy will grow faster and more soundly if its roots are planted in nourishing soil. After all Jesus Christ did not stay in Jerusalem or Bethlehem for most of his ministry. He had no physical house or building to live and work in. Instead he wandered the countryside meeting all who wanted to listen.
In so many things, growth comes from adversity. Although the vast majority of Turkish people are genuinely good people, the government is far from exemplary. Why stay where you are not wanted? The history of Christianity shows us that it is important to reach out to those with ears to hear. Christ and his disciples did not stay in Israel to build their church but went far and wide to preach the gospel. I hope Patriarch Bartholomew will reconsider his understandable desire to stay in his homeland. There are hundreds of millions of people who could benefit from his spiritual direction if they had more access to him. All of us who are Orthodox Christians should be willing to help fund the relocation of the Patriarchate. America is the new Greece. If Saint Paul had not traveled to the gentiles in Greece where would Christianity be today? (…)