From Turkey to the Caucasus

The 32nd European Week (Italy) on Christianity and Islam

“The Catholic Church in contemporary Turkey” and “Middle-Eastern Christians and West” are two themes addressed during the 32nd European Week “From Constantinople to the Caucasus. Empires and People from Christianity to Islam” which closes tomorrow in Villa Cagnola di Gazzada (Varese, Italy). The Ambrosiana Foundation Paul VI, in cooperation with the Sacred Heart Catholic University of Milan, promotes the event. The 2010 Week is the first of five meetings that the Foundation plans to devote to Mediterranean populations, “an area which constitutes a fundamental crossroads for contemporary inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue”, was stated in the welcoming speeches. “Msgr. Luigi Padovese, a courageous bishop, open to dialogue was one of our guests. We had invited him to speak of the presence of the Catholic Church, and more in general of the Christians, in contemporary Turkey. His tragic death saddened us deeply,” Secretary Luciano Vaccaro told SIR Europe. This evening, in memory of the apostolic vicar of Anatolia, the Great Hall of the Insubria University in Varese will host the meeting “Christians between Anatolia and the Caucasus”.The Catholic Church in Turkey. While at the beginning of the past century “over 25% of Turkey’s population was Christian”, today “Christians amount to less than 65 thousand in a Country with over 72 million inhabitants”. The government exerts a “strict control on Islam”, while Christian Churches “do not have a juridical status” . This situation not only made possible the “more or less arbitrary” numerous State confiscations of churches over the past decades. In fact, “from the juridical angle, the Churches are unable to provide for their own administration”, nor “can they form their ministers”, remarked Otmar Oehring, head of the Human Rights office of Missio. After the gradual closure of their theological institutions and seminaries, “all the Churches in Turkey are facing the problem of finding priests that will provide for the pastoral care of the faithful”. Oehring, whilst recalling the establishment of a working group chaired by Cardinal Kasper, prior to the Pontifical Visit of 2006, “for debate on primary issues”, said he hopes the initiative will be continued, and underlined two priorities. First of all, it is necessary “to ensure that those serving the Church in Turkey” are capable “of adapting to the local cultural situation and learn the language”. However, he cautions, “The future of the Church in Turkey is possible if the Church is registered as a juridical person, and it doesn’t only rely on the support of the Vatican”. In order to achieve this “not easy” objective, he adds, “the juridical regulations adopted in the past years can be referred to in our favour. Oehring thus appeals to the proposed “juridical solutions” (in a conference promoted by Missio in 2005: European Commission and European Council) “for Caritas, for the Bishops’ Conference and for the very dioceses and religious orders that could grant them juridical status, thus guaranteeing their existence before the law”.Christians between the East and the West. “The ongoing malaise doesn’t bring Christians (Eastern Christians ed.’s note) close to the West, which they learned to mistrust”, said Bernard Heyberger, Professor of the History of Eastern Christianity at the University of Tours, according to whom “the frequent accusation of collusion with Western powers led Eastern Christians to be cautious. In Egypt, because of Copt activists abroad who denounce the tyrannical autocracy of president Mubarak along with the Country’s gradually increasing islamization, local Copts fear acts of retaliation against them”. Christian minorities in the Muslim world are often the object of “serious threats” and risk “gradually disappearing” from the Middle East. However, in order to grasp the whole picture, the scholar believes that their “paradoxical and contradictory relationship” with the West must also be taken into account. “We are often surprised or disappointed when we meet Eastern Christians – he remarks -. When we try to instil them a culture” which is close to the Christianity of the origins “we realize” that “they share with their Muslim compatriots ideas and stereotypes”, which “do stem from European ideology, but at the same time they are evidence of a significant gap separating Eastern Christians from contemporary Western and democratic cultures”. Thus the reflection cannot be understood “in terms of dominating and dominated cultures, and of the violent acculturation of the latter by the former”. Rather, “it must centre on interactivity and connection, on cultural exchanges, on the intersection of concepts from the two areas”. “Admitting these facts – concludes the historian – could help overcome conflicts and promote the creation of a common area for open and peaceful debate between the East and the West”.

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