By John Kass,
ISTANBUL: The kind and gracious man has many visitors waiting and piles of paperwork on his desk that require his attention, as his is a working office and ministering to millions across the world takes up so much of his time.
But he met with me because he had a message for you:”Happy Easter to everyone, peace and love to the Christians and to all,” said Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of millions of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
And then he asked me if I cared to take coffee.
“Greek coffee or Turkish coffee?” he said with a smile and a wink. “Medium sweet, correct?”
For political and cultural reasons in the West, the role of Bartholomew is often either ignored or misunderstood in the United States.
He’s no mere churchman. He is the direct and 270th successor of the 2,000-year-old Christian church founded by St. Andrew the Apostle.
The patriarchate has been in this city since the beginning of Christianity and remained after the conquest of Byzantium by the Ottoman Turks. And it held on, desperately, through the 20th century, as the anti-religious Kemalist secularists ran Turkey.
It remained even through the pogroms of the 1950s, as the Greek population here dwindled to a little more than 2,000.
But great change has come to Turkey, and the Tribune has sent me here as witness. Americans hardly hear of the amazing things that are happening in
Turkey, even though it is a nation vital to America’s interests.
This is an Islamic nation and a member of NATO, bordering Iran, Syria and Iraq. The economy is booming; the people are optimistic and confident. Turkey is building a new identity. This change hasn’t come at the hands of those stridently secular Kemalists.
A politician who was once jailed a few years ago merely for mentioning Islam while reading a poem is now the country’s prime minister, Recep Erdogan.
Erdogan isn’t a theocrat. But the fall of the anti-religious secularists has allowed some in America to complain that the U.S. should fear what’s happening in Turkey. So I thought to ask the patriarch of the tiny minority Orthodox whether Erdogan worries him.
“These are political questions,” Bartholomew said, “but the changes have been extremely positive. Years ago, you couldn’t have dreamed of the changes. You couldn’t have believed it.
“The prime minister has promised to restore properties confiscated from Christians and Jews years ago. He has promised to reopen the Orthodox seminary at Halki, which has been closed for many years.
“Of course, we have concerns in some areas, and there are legal questions remaining, but the Orthodox-Islamic dialogue has been extremely positive. More positive than I ever would have imagined.”
Certainly, this is not some utopia. An alleged coup attempt by the secularist armed forces has led to prosecutions, even of journalists.
But there have been structural changes. For example, where once only a few elite families from Istanbul ruled the economy, business here is now far more democratic, with a thriving middle class.
A new constitution is being written, distancing the nation from the days when the military, as self-described protectors of the nation, would routinely topple Turkish governments with coups when things got too democratic.
How the Turkish parliament grapples with granting rights to minorities, from the Greek Orthodox Church seeking legal status to the large Kurdish population, will determine how quickly Turkey moves closer to its goal of membership in the European Union.
“It is unimaginable not to have legal status,” said the ecumenical patriarch. “We’ve been here for so many centuries. So this is of concern.”
Still, there have been many symbolic changes over the past few years. Here are a few of the easy symbolic touchstones:
Turkish women are no longer harassed for wearing a head scarf.
Turkish television runs Kurdish situation comedies, though 20 years ago the whispered suggestion of programming for the minority Kurds would have landed you in prison, suspected of supporting terrorism.
It is no longer a political kiss of death for a Turkish politician to express faith, something American presidents do with regularity, even if they attend church only during election season.
Yet in every government office and on the walls of buildings, you can see posters and paintings glorifying Kemal Ataturk, the brilliant and ruthless nationalist who considered religion and multiethnic diversity to be enemies as he conceived the modern Turkish state.
There are many reasons for change here, and even a series of general columns can’t hope to address them all. It would take volumes written by wiser people who have spent their lifetimes studying this extremely complicated and diverse nation.
But economic and democratic liberalization have gone hand in hand with dialogue, and Bartholomew has been working to build it with an Islamic Turkish theologian who now lives in Pennsylvania, is relatively unknown in America and yet has vast influence here.
His name is Muhammed Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen preaches interfaith acceptance and peace. His followers number in the millions, in Turkey and across the world.
Bartholomew refers to his friend by the affectionate nickname of “Hoja Effendi.”
“He builds bridges, and religion should build bridges,” said the patriarch. “This is why we need the dialogues. Not to have religious fanatics who divide people. The idea is to bring people of faith together for the benefit of humankind.”
As he spoke, the Islamic call to prayer erupted from a neighborhood mosque outside. The sound filled the patriarch’s office. It echoed and echoed along the walls.