The Ecumenical Patriarch is right

The Ecumenical Patriarch is right

Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, visited the Turkish Parliament the other day. This was a first, for His All Holiness had visited the Turkish Parliament only once before, and only to attend the funeral of the late President Turgut Özal. But this time, he was invited by the Parliament’s Constitution Conciliation Commission, in which deputies from all parties work together to draft a new charter for Turkey

After his meeting at the commission, where he expressed his expectations from the new constitution, His All Holiness said the following to journalists:

“It is the first official invitation to non-Muslim minorities in Republican history. We don’t want to be second-class citizens. Unfortunately there have been injustices in the past. These are all slowly being rectified. A new Turkey is being born. We are leaving the meeting with hope and are extremely grateful.”

What a great summary that was. It underlined the bitter fact that throughout the history of the “secular” Turkish Republic, non-Muslims were seen as second-class citizens, if not enemies within. It also heralded that “a new Turkey is being born,” in which the anti-non-Muslim prejudices of the past were being abandoned “slowly.” (I, too, wish the change were faster.) The Ecumenical Patriarch also noted that this current transformation in Turkey made him, and his fellow Christians, hopeful and grateful.

Now, if you are among those who believe that Turkey is being drawn away from its bright secular past to an Islamist “darkness,” you might find these hard to believe. But please do believe the Ecumenical Patriarch, and let me explain to you why he is right.

His All Holiness is right, because the main threat to Turkey’s Christians and Jews has not been Islam, but Turkish nationalism. In fact Islam respects the religious rights of “the people of the book” – Jews and Christians – and that is why non-Muslims had freedom of worship throughout the Ottoman centuries. In the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire also gave equal citizenship rights to non-Muslims, leading to the appearance of many Christians and Jews in the Ottoman bureaucracy and Parliament. 

In the 20th century, however, both the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the nation-state model imported from continental Europe led to the emergence of Turkish nationalism. This secular yet illiberal ideology had little respect for “the people of the book” and wanted to create a non-Muslim-free Turkey – not for its love of Muslimness, but Turkishness. Hence came the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians, Greeks or the Assyrians, or the “Wealth Tax” on all non-Muslims including the Jews. 

Kemalism, the official ideology of the Turkish Republic, was the embodiment of this nationalist paradigm. Clueless Westerners often praised Kemalism for its “secularism” and “modernism,” but little they noticed that the persecution of Turkey’s Christians (and Kurds, for that matter), from which they rightfully complained, was carried out by none other than the Kemalist Jacobins and their sans-culottes. (By the latter, I refer to the vulgar ultra-nationalists of Turkey, whose ideology is a crude but natural reflection of that of the more sophisticated Kemalist elite.)

That is why post-Kemalist Turkey, just like the pre-Kemalist (Ottoman) one, will be more amiable to non-Muslims. And we are seeing the evidence of that day by day. 

P.S.: You might have noted that I did not call the Ecumenical Patriarchate “Fener Rum Orthodox Patriarchate” as the Turkish state and mainstream media does. For I believe that every religious institution has a right to define itself, a right that should be respected by others. 

P.P.S.: If you live in Ankara, you might join my talk and book signing tomorrow night, at 7 p.m., at the Turkish-American Association. Registration is required at