The war on Christians is extending into Turkey

Istanbul, July 22, 2016

Canon Ian Sherwood
Canon Ian Sherwood
Turkey’s
President Erdogan is already facing international
calls to respect human rights in Turkey following
last weekend’s failed coup. Now he’s also
being encouraged to champion the rights of Christians
living in the country as well. The call is coming
from the Anglican Church’s venerable man in
Istanbul, Canon Ian Sherwood, who for 28 years has
been chaplain of the British consulate there and
priest of the Crimean Memorial Church in the city.
‘As long-centuries established Christians in
Turkey we are alarmed at how life is evolving in
Turkey,’ says Sherwood, who warns that the
climate of tolerance has changed in the country,
which is more than 99 per cent Muslim, mainly Sunni.
‘We wish Turkey peace and tolerance – the
same tolerance that most societies west of Turkey
enjoy.’

Under Erdogan, Turkey has faced criticism for what many
see as its lacklustre efforts to oppose the rise of
Islamic State just across the border in Syria. Liberals
and political opponents alike in Turkey have also attacked
Erdogan’s conservative Islamist policy agenda.
Sherwood himself doesn’t blame Erdogan, nor his
Islamist Justice and Development party government for the
cooling of the cultural climate for Christians in Turkey.
Instead he appeals to the devoutly Sunni president to
protect the religious convictions of others living in the
country – much in the same way as Anglican leaders
here stand up for the religious rights of non-Christians
in Britain.

In recent years Sherwood says that he has witnessed a
rising undercurrent of intolerance towards Christians and
other non-Muslims in Turkey – and this goes further
than boys standing on the wall of his churchyard shouting,
‘Allahu Akbar’. The church, a favourite of
visiting tourists and expats in the city, was built after
the Crimean War in the 1850s to mark the valour of British
servicemen who died in the conflict, and is just a short
walk from Taksim Square where last weekend hundreds of
angry supporters of Erdogan violently attacked soldiers
taking part in the coup. They, too, shouted ‘Allahu
Akbar’.

‘I’m not optimistic about the plight of
Christians in Turkey,’ says Sherwood, who also
reports that many indigenous Christians are now trying to
leave the country. ‘Bear in mind we’ve had a
Roman Catholic Bishop murdered, we’ve had clergy
threatened, we’ve had one priest murdered 10 years
ago. Any Christian leader, if they’re being honest,
would say that some of what’s going on is quite
alarming.’

Among a series of attacks on Christian clerics over the
last decade, a Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, was shot
in the back of the head while praying in his church at the
Black Sea town of Trabzon by a teenager with
ultra-nationalist sympathies in a religiously motivated
attack. This was at the same time as worldwide protests
greeted the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.
‘One wishes that one had equal rights with all other
communities that have existed in Turkey for
centuries,’ says Sherwood. ‘We [Anglicans]
have been there since 1582 and yet we’ve not been
able to build churches except for a short period in the
nineteenth century. And now it’s very rare that you
hear of a Christian community being able to build a
church. Most of the established places where you have
church buildings have to host other Christian communities
because those communities aren’t allowed to build
churches.’

Sherwood’s appeal comes as Erdogan reasserts his
authority following last weekend’s intervention by
part of Turkey’s armed forces, traditionally a
bulwark of Kemalist secularism against Islamic rule in the
country. It has used force or exerted pressure several
times, most notably in 1960 but as recently as 1997, to
halt Islamist governments in Ankara from undermining the
non-religious foundations of the modern Turkish state,
established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Yet if alarm bells are ringing, they don’t appear to
be sounding quite so resonantly from the Foreign Office,
which has been more vocal about the erosion of press
freedoms in Erdogan’s Turkey than the protection of
minority religions. That said, just this month, the then
Europe Minister David Lidington insisted in response to a
parliamentary question that the FCO was holding regular
discussions with Turkey on issues concerning freedom of
religion. ‘The Turkish government continues to
improve protections for all religious minorities in
Turkey,’ he said in a written answer. If this is the
case, it sounds like someone should inform the Christian
clergy in Turkey. Either way, it remains to be seen
whether President Erdogan will speak up for non-Muslim
religious minorities in Turkey.

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