Historic mass marks new beginning for Turkey's Christians

Historic open-air mass at a monastery on the Black Sea coast marks new beginning for Turkey's Christians.

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ISTANBUL // When Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, recently addressed hundreds of followers in an open-air mass in the ruins of an old monastery in north-eastern Turkey, it was not only a spiritual event, but a political one as well. "I feel very proud and happy to be here and to conduct this mass," Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, said during the service on August 15 in the monastery of Sumela, set spectacularly in a cliff about 50km south of the city of Trabzon on Turkey's Black Sea coast. "After 88 years, the tears of the Virgin Mary have stopped flowing." The service in Sumela and an Armenian mass planned for September in south-eastern Anatolia are seen as strong political gestures by the government in Ankara towards the small Christian communities, who feel under pressure in this overwhelmingly Muslim, but secular, country.

Bartholomew's mass at Sumela was an effort by the state "to refute scepticism concerning the sincerity of the democratic and humanitarian 'signals of opening' in Turkey", Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, the patriarch's spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. Sumela, whose history dates to the fourth century, used to be one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Christians in Anatolia, but it was turned into a museum after the Greeks in the region were driven out during a war between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s.

The mass, marking the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and attended by about 2,000 Christians from Turkey, Greece, Russia and Georgia, was the first religious service to be held in the monastery since 1922. As the monastery square could only hold several hundred guests, others watched on large television screens nearby. From now on, there will be a mass every year at the monastery, a local official said.

Ozan Ceyhun, a Turkish-born German politician who works as a consultant for companies doing business in Turkey, said the approval of the church service was no coincidence because the government in Ankara is keenly aware of how much its standing in the international arena depends on the way Christians are treated here. "Turkey's image abroad is closely connected to questions of how the church does," Mr Ceyhun said in a telephone interview from the southern city of Adana. Government ministers in Ankara "see that steps like [allowing the mass at Sumela] are welcomed abroad".

Turkish nationalists said the mass was a tool used by Orthodox Christians to resurrect dreams of a Greek republic in the region, thereby threatening Turkey's national unity, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, dismissed those fears. "What happened? They came, celebrated mass and went home again," Mr Erdogan said during an iftar in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep. Mr Erdogan, a pious Muslim accused by his opponents of following a secret Islamist agenda, said allowing the church service to go on was good for Turkey, both domestically and internationally. "What did we lose? We have gained something, really. If you trust religion, you do not fear religious freedom. If you trust ideas and thought, you do not fear freedom of expression."

The prime minister added that allowing Turkey's small Greek Orthodox community, estimated to number 2,000 to 3,000, to hold the mass in Sumela, also strengthened the country's standing in the world and its position when dealing with issues of religious freedom with Greece. Referring to Turkey's demand that Greece build a mosque in its capital, Athens, Mr Erdogan said that more freedom for Christians in Turkey made the Turkish position more credible. "I am one step ahead," he said.

George Papandreou, Greece's prime minister, welcomed the mass at Sumela as a "historic and important event". It was a sign of bilateral rapprochement with Turkey and reflected "a spirit of co-operation and peace between us and our neighbour". Mr Erdogan's government has also granted Turkey's Armenians permission to hold a religious service on September 19 in an old Armenian church, recently restored by the state, on Akdamar, an island in Lake Van in south-eastern Anatolia.

The event has triggered excitement among Turkey's estimated 80,000 Armenian Christians and is seen as a gesture of reconciliation by the state. Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in massacres and death marches during the final years of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Armenia and many international scholars say the deaths constituted genocide, a term Ankara rejects. Mr Ceyhun said Turkish ministers also favoured opening an ancient church in Tarsus in southern Turkey, the birthplace of the apostle Paul, one of the most important figures in early Christianity, for religious services. "Erdogan himself is very open and flexible in this respect, but there are people within the bureaucracy that take a different view."

One of the most difficult problems is that of a seminary for Greek Orthodox priests on Heybeliada, an island in the Sea of Marmara close to Istanbul. Because the school has been closed since the early 1970s, the Orthodox clergy in what once was Constantinople is in danger of dying out. The Erdogan government has said it is in favour of reopening the school, but secular groups fear that such a step would lead to the opening of Islamic schools as well.