German bishops calling for the rededication of a former church in Tarsus feel that it would be very helpful toward the acceptance of Turks in Germany if a sign of acceptance of Christians were to be seen in Turkey. Yet, others feel that this reciprocity amounts to a veiled threat
An offer by senior Catholic clergy in Germany to help Turks deal with anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe has come with an eyebrow-raising clause. German bishops are demanding tolerance for Christians in Turkey in exchange for their support for mosques in Germany.
Or more concretely: Turnabout's fair play, how about Turkey's prime minister clearing the way for opening of a Christian center in Tarsus, the hometown of Christendom's founder St. Paul?
Those Catholic leaders have been pushing to rededicate a former-church in Tarsus, the birthplace of the Apostle Paul. According to a March article in the Kirchenzeitung: Erzbistum Köln (Cologne's Archbishopric newspaper), the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner proposed in a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Turkey rededicate a historic Tarsus church built several centuries ago – which is now functioning as an army depot-turned museum.
"Such a show of goodwill would not only gain the commendation of the world's Christian community, it would also improve relations with the Turkish community living in Cologne," said Meisner.
But some Turkish Christians expressed discomfort at the offer, seeing in it a bit of slyness if not a veiled threat.
"As a man of God, I am against this sort of mindset," said Armenian Catholic priest Hayr Hagopos. "Christianity does not allow for this sort of precondition. Every religion is divine and all people should be allowed to worship as they see fit."
But, Ali Murat Yel, a sociologist from Fatih University disagreed. It may not conform with turn-the-other-cheek dictums of faith, but a bit of pragmatism in inter-faith diplomacy is not necessarily a bad thing, he said.
"Rightfully so, the Catholic church regularly brings up reciprocity to put pressure on other countries," he said. "The idea is itself not a part of Christianity, but rather born out of secular pragmatism." By applying soft-power to its diplomacy, the goal of a more tolerant global atmosphere is served, he said.
But matters more temporal ultimately rule. A March article in German magazine Der Spiegel said, "Without government approval, no religious community can be active in Turkey. Muslim clerics must also submit their sermons to the authorities. The rule was introduced during the country's founding in an effort to keep Islam under control. The strict system is intended to guarantee the state's freedom from religious influences, but it also drastically restricts Christians' freedom to practice their faith."
Normally, the issue would be moot after this, but two new developments keep it a topic of public debate. Pope Benedict XVI has declared this the "year of St. Paul." Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, expects thousands of pilgrims to visit Tarsus to celebrate the 2000th birthday of the Apostle, beginning on June 28, and will be attending mass there himself. Secondly, with Turkey vying for European Union membership, it cannot afford to turn down a Christian project.
In addition, the Church, especially the German bishops, is offering something in return. The Germans have often taken a benevolent stance toward the construction of mosques in Germany, a policy they intend to continue. In return, they are demanding tolerance for Christians in Turkey, said Der Spiegel.
Source: Turkish Daily News (English)