A Jesuit Community in Ankara
Jean-Marc Balhan, SJ
The Society of Jesus has been present in Turkey since its beginnings. Jesuits established a residence in the Ottoman capital in 1583. They served Christian convicts and were also entrusted with a school. From Istanbul, they spread from the Greek islands to Persia. At that time, they understood their mission as that of strengthening the Catholic community and of working “for the unity of Christians" in the mentality of the time. After the suppression of the Society in 1772, the majority of the houses were closed and it was not until 1881 that the Jesuits came back to Turkey, working mainly at the service of Armenian Christians. New residences or schools were then established especially in Central Anatolia. After the First World War and the War of Independence that followed, the Jesuit houses closed progressively, with the exception of that of Istanbul which continued until 1983.
In 1985, academic exchanges started between the theological faculty of the University of Ankara and the Gregorian University in Rome. In this context, Jesuit academics regularly visited Ankara to give lectures and seminars, while Turkish academics came to teach at the Gregorian University, an initiative that continues to this day. These meetings having proved successful, the idea was born to have in Turkey, a place from which we could deepen these initial contacts and start again a presence of the Society in this country for the sake of interreligious dialogue. This happened in October 2000.
Parish work and interreligious dialogue
Started especially in view of interreligious dialogue, the Jesuit community is first of all in charge of the only Catholic parish of the Turkish capital. Indeed, in March 2006, our previous General, Fr. Kolvenbach, told us during his visit to Ankara, that our main mission was to be a Jesuit parish, which means open to the world, with a strong emphasis on interreligious dialogue, spiritual, by paying a special attention to the accompaniment of people, and social, by paying attention to the most disadvantaged.
In this country gathering 75 million people, Turkish Christians are a very small minority (around 0.15%, that is 100,000 people), half of them being Armenians. They live mainly in Istanbul, Izmir and in the South. In Ankara, they are only a few hundreds, plus the foreigners working mainly in embassies, universities, business as well as some migrants. The Ankara Parish is part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul, a city situated 450 km from Ankara, which means that the Jesuits are very far from their “colleagues”.
The Ankara Parish is made of two communities: national and international. The Turkish speaking community gathers in the chapel situated at the first floor of the residence. It is open during the week and welcomes everyone. Christians and Muslims come to pray, to lighten a candle, to ask questions, visit the church, speak about their problems and even to be delivered from “a curse”. We are visited also by Muslim students and by imams who come to our church for a formation before being sent to some European countries. We are also invited from time to time for a lecture for the sake of “dialogue. As for the international community, coming from all around the world (Philippines, Americas, Europe and more recently Africa), it gathers in the church linked to the Apostolic Nuntiature, and celebrates mainly in English. It is made of expatriates who live in Turkey for a short period of time. Some more variety has been added to it recently as African countries have opened embassies in the Turkish capital and as African students have started receiving scholarships for studies in Turkey. Indeed Turkey has recently started business relations with many countries in Africa.
The main challenges of the Turkish speaking congregation are communion and formation. Indeed, made of several different rites, some Catholics others not, we are a very ecumenical community. Indeed there are no Eastern church in the region. As far as formation is concerned, the Catholic Church being very small and with a clergy made mainly of foreigners, it is not always easy to find nor produce material in Turkish.
At the service of refugees
A service to refugees was started in Ankara in 2009 in response to the increasing needs of vulnerable urban refugees coming mainly from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. A small program had already started in 2002, with the help of the international community of the Ankara Parish lead by the newly arrived Jesuit community. However the necessity was felt to professionalize the work by offering a stable structure. That is how the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) got into the picture in October 2009, working in collaboration with Kader, a local NGO. There is now in Ankara a small core team of three people.
Thanks to the international Catholic parish, we have a good operating centre, offering space for welcoming and gathering people for registration or education purposes as well as a repository to store goods to be distributed. It puts Kader/JRS in touch with the international community from where a good number of volunteers is recruited. Moreover, being the administrative capital of the country, Ankara hosts the UNHCR and other organizations with whom Kader/JRS is in regular contact for advocacy, fund raising and awareness rising activities purposes.
The parish program was started as a monthly “distribution Sunday” where emergency help was provided to vulnerable urban refugees, whatever their culture or religious background. Kader/JRS develops the program mainly in three areas: it continues emergency aid for the most vulnerable, offers an education program based mainly on language teaching (Turkish for first integration in Turkey, and English for future resettlement, for approximately 50 people) and develops a referral system allowing refugees in need to be heard because of their vulnerability. Outside of that it also provides psycho-social activities (sports, counseling, etc.). Both emergency help and education program are implemented in Ankara with the help of international and local volunteers. In 2011, JRS started a second center in Kırıkkale, a city situated 80 km from Ankara. These last year, thousands of Afghans have arrived in Turkey without almost any means; seven hundreds of them were sent to Kırıkkalle and are living in very poor conditions. Kader/JRS runs there its full program (emergency help, education, psycho-social activities, legal information and referral).
Started mainly in view of interreligious dialogue, the Jesuit community in Ankara has also seen itself more and more involved with pastoral and social work. Regarding pastoral work, it looks now for means to improve Christian formation in Turkish. As far as Kader/JRS is concerned, with the Syrian crisis and the presence in Turkey of tens of thousands of Syrians, it looks now for means to be of some help for the most vulnerable among them, when continuing to help the other refugees.