Saturday, January 26, 2008

Island dispute highlights unease of Turkey's religious minorities

Island dispute highlights unease of Turkey's religious minoritiesBy C. ONUR ANT - Associated Press Writer© AP
2008-01-25 12:00:37 -

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) - The Orthodox church says it's a historic monastery, and the Turkish government describes it as old pig farm. A dispute over a dilapidated structure highlights tension over Turkey's religious minorities, a key concern as the European Union considers membership for the Muslim-majority nation.In November, forest ministry officials knocked down part
of a building that the church said was a monastery on Heybeliada, an island in the Sea of Marmara off Istanbul. They said renovation there was illegal because it was taking place on government property.Now the ruins are the subject of a legal battle between the government and the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarchate, which has been hosting Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis during his trip to Turkey this week, the first by a Greek premier in almost five decades.Greece has been an advocate of the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey, though Greek opposition parties have blamed the government for not doing enough to support the dwindling community.
The row over the building underlines the unease of Turkey's religious minorities. Many Turks view the demands of those minorities with suspicion, fearing they could undermine national unity in an echo of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.
Rights groups claim ultranationalists, often with the tacit approval of state officials, bully anyone pushing for minority rights into silence through court actions, threats and even violence. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his government will not tolerate ethnic nationalism or discrimination.
The dispute in the Sea of Marmara is the latest episode of a problematic past between the Patriarchate and the Turkish state. The church has long called for the reopening of its theology school on Heybeliada, which was shut down in 1985 after the last students graduated.
The official argument for the seminary's closure is that a religious institution without government oversight is not compatible with secular institutions of Turkey, a country where all Muslim clerics are trained and paid by the government, and are handed scripts of Friday sermons by a state agency.
Patriarch Bartholomew says Ankara refuses to open the seminary because it aims to prevent the church from raising new leaders. The church's leader has to be Turkish, which makes it difficult for the community of several thousand to produce any candidates.
The Greek premier, Karamanlis, said Wednesday in Ankara that the opening of the school was something Turkey should «deal with sincerely» as it seeks EU membership.
Bartholomew said he used to pray once a year at the building that was knocked down by government officials. Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, a spokesman for the Patriarchate, said the plot is where the historic Makarios Monastery once stood.«Earlier, our properties were taken away without any court ruling,» Anagnostopoulos said. «But this is the first time a church is being demolished.
local official in Heybeliada, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the Orthodox church was unfairly trying to erect a new house of worship in place of an old, deserted one.
He said the building, now a pile of roof tiles and stones filling a narrow hall, was long left on its own with no religious ceremonies taking place there.Egemen Bagis, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Erdogan, said in an e-mail to the Patriarchate's advocates that the building was «not a historical church but an old pig farm.
The e-mail was shared with The Associated Press by a Houston-based public relations company that is working for the patriarchate.Bagis, who confirmed the e-mail's authenticity, denied that the building's destruction was fueled by anti-Christian sentiments.
Turkey declines to say that the Patriarch has ecumenical, or universal status. It says he is only the leader of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. Many Turks fear a Christian church with universal status could carve out a Vatican-like state in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city.

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