Monday, January 14, 2013

A Christian Visits Turkey
Dr Herman Roborgh SJ

Affinity Intercultural Association is a group of Muslims living in Australia who seek to promote the understanding and integration of the Muslim community in Australian society.  In October this year, I was invited by this group to join a “study-tour” to Turkey together with ten other interested Australians.   We spent about ten days travelling from one major city to another, visiting city councils, educational institutions and TV stations as well as other places of historical and cultural interest.

Most of the people we encountered in Turkey were connected in some way or other with the Gulen movement.  Fethullah Gulen (born in1941) is a Muslim scholar from Turkey now living in the United States, who has inspired countless Muslims throughout the world by his speeches and writings.  He reminds Muslims that their Islamic faith should stimulate them to be involved in society by contributing to human welfare in one way or another such as by becoming active in education and the social media.  Besides performing the normal religious duties of prayer and fasting, believing Muslims should build a society in which all persons belonging to whatever group or religious conviction are respected and cared for.  This vision has motivated Muslim believers in many countries throughout the world to collaborate and to put the vision into action. 

Turkey is one of the many countries in which people inspired by the Gulen movement have opened schools to instill the values of respect for human dignity and social harmony.  We visited TV channels and publishing houses, which were promoting the ideas of Fethullah Gulen.  Since interfaith dialogue and intercultural understanding have now become a condition for world peace, the Gulen movement is a beacon of hope for people who seek to collaborate across religious and cultural boundaries to work for universal peace and harmony.

Society in Turkey has been visibly expanding socially and economically since the AKP (Justice Party) government came into power in 2007.  Cities are smart and clean.  Everywhere there are parks and gardens.  Education is available for more and more children, though the need for facilities for higher education is a pressing concern. The market places of the small towns and villages are gradually vanishing and rows and rows of apartment buildings are taking their place.  However, the huge influx of people from the villages into the cities has put strains on the social infrastructure. 

We visited several universities with impressive- looking buildings and facilities.  Our hosts at these universities told us that the university accepted students from many different countries and also provided scholarships for deserving students.  Scholarships were available in high schools and at tuition centres as well, which catered for young people who had dropped out of formal education and were at risk of becoming radicalized by political dissenters.  At these centres they could further their studies, be mentored by decent role models and have access to recreation and skill-building activities.

Turkey is a modern republic that has inherited the cultural and religious exchanges that have taken place in this part of the world for centuries.  The famous Silk Road ran from ancient Constantinople (present day Istanbul) through the south-eastern part of Turkey into Iran and China.  Various peoples such as the Hittites, the Greeks and the Arabs have lived in what today is modern Turkey and each group has contributed something of its own civilizational skills.  Different methods of making carpets, cloth, ceramics and tiles have been brought to Turkey along this route and developed further by subsequent generations of people. 
The Jews and the Christians brought their religious values to the people of this region for centuries before the Muslims came.  Haghia Sophia was built as a church in the sixth century and stands as a monument to the Christian faith of the period.  It became a mosque during the Ottoman Empire and is now a museum. The Ottomans were remarkable for many things, including their own style of architecture.  The Blue Mosque dominates the skyline of modern Istanbul and is an expression of the strength and beauty of Islamic faith and civilization.

Christians now form a minority group in Turkey.  We saw evidence of their vibrant faith in the cave churches of Cappadocia where, from the 9th century onwards, Christians had worshipped in more than 30 deep caves whose walls are still decorated with their Byzantine religious art.  In the south-eastern part of the country, we were impressed with the efforts that the local government of Mardin was making to restore an ancient monastery dedicated to St. Nicholas.  A community of monks had lived here in the early centuries of Christianity.  The present generation of Muslims now living in this area wants to remember and honor their religious heritage.

There is evidence that Nestorian Christians were worshipping in another city called Diyarbakir in the second century.  Armenian and the Greek Orthodox Churches can be seen in various places throughout the region.  Even today, Catholic and Orthodox churches and monasteries are being used as places of worship throughout the country, especially in the vicinity of Mardin.  One of these has a section for women (nuns) and a section for men (monks), who devote their time to prayer and labor (ora et labora) while passing on the traditions of the Orthodox Church to the younger generation. One young man recited the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic and told us he was making efforts to learn the language.
Another monastery is providing temporary shelter for refugees from nearby Syria. In Ankara, the Jesuits care for a Catholic church frequented by Armenian Orthodox Christians.  A Catholic church in Istanbul welcomes Syrian Orthodox Christians on a regular basis to perform their liturgy because the Orthodox community does not have a church of its own.  Churches and mosques can also be seen in close proximity to one another in the same neighborhood.

Even though Turkey was proclaimed a secular republic when it came into being in 1923, the sense of the sacred has not been lost.  Respect for the sacred wherever it appears and in whichever shape it appears, which is so much part of Islam, is evident among the people of modern Turkey.  Signs of religious faith can be seen not only in the structures of many fine mosques but even more in the gracious courtesy and warm hospitality of the people.  Simple gestures such as the religious expressions of mash Allah (thanks be to God) and insha Allah (if God so wills) have not become a mere social custom without religious meaning.  Readiness to waive the full payment for an article in the marketplace expresses the awareness of God who always observes how human beings behave and relate with one another.

There is an opportunity for dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Turkey – not primarily the dialogue of theological exchange but rather the dialogue of everyday life, which accepts a human person as first and foremost a fellow human being.  Both Islam and Christianity share this conviction, which is rooted in our common faith in God, the Creator of all.  This awareness must find expression in the attitude of Muslims towards the Christian minority population and through their active care for non-Muslims in Turkey.  The challenge for the Christians is to remain true to their faith as disciples of Christ, who came not to win power but to serve one’s neighbor in the spirit of the Gospel. 

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