Turkey: Christians celebrate low-key Christmas after recent attack

Istanbul, 24 Dec. (AKI) - Turkey's 100,000-strong Christian community was on Monday hoping that Christmas this year would pass uneventfully without further sectarian attacks such as that earlier this month against an Italian Catholic priest - the latest of several in little over a year.

As schools and offices in the overwhelmingly Muslim majority country will be open on Tuesday, 25 December will simply be a day that comes between Eid al-Adha (the Islamic festival of sacrifice) and the New Year celebrations.

Christmas trees decked in glass baubles and Christmas lights have been put up in some streets and shop windows. "These are signs of a blending of Christian and Muslim cultures that have nothing to do with the substance of Christmas," Monsignor Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar in Turkey, told Adnkronos International (AKI)

The knife attack by a Muslim youth last Sunday against an Italian Catholic priest, Adriano Franchini, in the Turkish port city of Izmir, has undoubtedly marred the festivities for Christians and left many in a sombre mood.

Franchini is out of danger and the Turkish authorities have described the attack as an isolated incident. But many Christians feel threatened, recalling many other incidents, such as the fatal shooting at point-blank range in February last year of another Italian priest, Andrea Santoro, by a teenage youth in the Black Sea port city of Trabzon.

Santoro's successor, French priest Pierre Brunissen, was also stabbed in an attack in Samsun on the Black Sea in February last year.

The murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul in January this year, and the murders in April of three Bible publishers in the southeastern city of Malatya are also all too fresh in Turkish Christians' minds.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday, cited by the New Anatolian Daily that attacks on several priests and a publishing house in Turkey are incidents that the government "can never accept."

"We will do what we have to do (to end these incidents) till the very end," he told a gathering in Istanbul to exchange Muslim Eid al-Adha (festival of sacrifice) greetings.

"Those who are staging them do not know anything about Islam," he said.

The visit in November 2006 to Turkey of Pope Benedict XVI has changed little, however, said Padovese. "The climate, basically remains the same," he stated.

Christians had hoped that it would calm the anti-Christian sentiment prevalent in many sectors of Turkish society and and show that they are interested in dialogue rather than proselytism.

"There are groups and local communities which have shown few signs of opening up towards minorities. Among these are the ultranationalist press, which continues to inflame the situation."

"We need to make a distinction between a lay state and laicism," said Padovese. "The difficulties that Christians have faced in Turkey are the direct result of nationalism that in the name of secularism has oppressed the country's minorities," he underlined.

Erdogan's ruling Islamist-rooted AKP party has shown recent signs of openness towards Christians, however. In early December, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, won a 10-year battle to be allowed to celebrate mass in a church in the Mediterranean coastal city of Demre.

Demre is built close to the birthplace of St Nicholas - the inspiration for modern-day Santa Claus - whose remains are buried in the southern Italian city of Bari.

Padovese termed the Turkish government's go-ahead for the mass in Demre's medieval church of St Nicholas a symbolic "but extremely significant" gesture that shows the direction in which it is going."

He described the government's moves to remove the current ban on wearing the Muslim headscarf in state offices and universities as a positive step. "I believe a law of this kind, drafted by moderate Islamists, should on balance be seen in a positive light by Christians," Padovese said.

"I would like these steps towards dialogue and tolerance to rapidly pick up speed, but I understand that Turkey is a country that does not have just one soul, but many," he concluded.

Muslims form 99.08 percent (mostly Sunni), and Christians and Jews the remaining 0.2 percent.


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