Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been using the nation’s Christians as a “welcome scapegoat” to distract from his political errors in Syria and Libya, asserts prominent religious scholar Alexander Görlach.
“The persecution of Christians in Turkey continues,” writes Görlach, senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “While the world is busy fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with mass unemployment and a global recession, the Turkish government is taking advantage of the situation to further pressure minorities.”
Writing this week for Deutsche Welle, the New York-based expert in comparative religions asserts that Erdoğan has been adopting a nationalist and Islamic rhetoric, resulting in a further marginalization of Turkey’s Christians.
Erdoğan, in fact, has “been busy reorganizing his secular republic into a mixture of Ottomanism and Islam for some time now,” Görlach writes.
As the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, President Erdoğan is playing to the religious fervor of his population, resurrecting plans to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Early next month, Turkey’s highest administrative court is slated to rule on a petition to reopen the building to Muslim worshipers.
Hagia Sophia, which dates back to the sixth century, was one of Christendom’s most treasured cathedrals but was converted into a mosque when Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered the city in 1453.
In 1931, Turkey’s President Atatürk turned the mosque into a museum as part of his program to modernize and secularize the country.
“After the decision on Hagia Sophia by the Council of State on July 2, inshallah, we will be praying there,” Mr. Erdogan has told members of his pro-Islam ruling Justice and Development Party.
One of the oldest Christian communities in the world has been feeling the brunt of the pro-Islamic pressure from Ankara, Görlach argues, and the Syriac-Aramaic Christians in the country’s southeast have had to fear for their rights and property.
In effect, Turkish authorities have begun expropriating land and homes from Christians, reassigning them to other owners and leaving the affected Christians homeless, Görlach asserts. A number of the Christian churches in this part of the country have been destroyed, he adds, during the armed confrontation with the Kurds.
The Syriac-Aramaic church is one of the only churches in the world to use the Aramaic tongue in its worship, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ himself.
Görlach cites the case of Father Sefer Bileçen a Syriac Orthodox priest from southeastern Turkey who was charged with being a member of a terrorist group after he gave water and bread to members of a Kurdish separatist group who knocked at the door of his monastery.
The priest responded that his Christian duty obliges him to furnish assistance to anyone who asked for it.
Attempts to associate Turkish Christians with Kurdish militias — enemies of the state — will only serve to stoke greater animosity toward the already marginalized Christian community, Görlach notes.
A rally by Turkey’s People’s Democratic party (HDP), the pro-Kurdish opposition party, in Ankara last Saturday ended in confrontation with police, who deployed teargas and arrested demonstrators.
In point of fact, Turkish Christians have suffered systematic discrimination for years. The vast majority of the modern Turks, including Erdogan, are Sunni Muslims, and minorities, including Christians, make up just 0.2 percent of the Turkish population.