With the Turkish 2023 elections on the horizon, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is losing support. According to the Human Rights Watch, “the assault on human rights and the rule of law” did not stop with the pandemic. After the conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque in 2020, and while Halki Seminary in Turkey has been closed for 50 years, many wonder what can be done to combat the hostility and structural problems the nation’s various Christian communities face.
In a recent policy briefing, Steven Howard and Sarah Bassil of In Defense of Christians (IDC) were joined by David Vergili, Ohannes Kılıçdağı, Tugba Erdemir, Aykan Erdemir, and Elizabeth Prodromou. This diverse panel of experts discussed the current political, cultural, and religious environment of Turkey, as well as potential policy options for a more democratic and religiously rich Turkey.
As of now, Christians make up 0.2 percent of Turkey’s population. In particular, Kılıçdağı, whose research focuses on the history of non-Muslims and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, said Christian Armenians are “living in a familiar but hostile environment.” The country’s increasing nationalism and chauvinism have made the situation worse, so religious minorities feel less at home.
The recent anniversary of Sayfo on June 15 brought to light the tragedy of the Assyrian genocide, as the Syriac church takes steps to commemorate this day. Vergili shared that with over 25,000 Syriacs in Turkey—a majority of whom live in Istanbul—policies have brought them to near extinction.
Podromou, faculty director on the Initiative on Religion, Law, and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, addressed the value and importance of understanding history for “concrete policy design.” She explained how, until now, history has been “instrumentalized and popularized in ways that have limited the possibility for Turkish political elites to build policies that are informed by the logic of inclusion and pluralism.” This continues to make survival nearly impossible for religious minorities in the country. Looking to the upcoming elections and the immediate future, Turkish democrats need to “move beyond the dichotomy of Kemalist secularist democracy and Erdogan’s Islamist authoritarianism” to change the ongoing discourse, reopen the Halki theological school, and “look at cultural heritage management as part of human rights and religious freedom policy.”
Tugba Erdemir, co-chair of the Middle East Working Group of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, elaborated by conveying how religious heritage sites are visible, palpable testimonies for different faith communities, helping to sustain their survival. She compared the restoration of the iconic Armenian churches of Aghtamar to that of Surp Giragos, highlighting the inconsistency of Turkey’s religious cultural heritage management and protection. The Turkish government undertook Aghtamar’s restoration, and the Istanbul-based Armenian Surp Giragos Foundation spearheaded the restoration of the latter. Ultimately, “Aghtamar became a museum under state jurisdiction, open for worship only one day a year,” while Surp Giragos was consecrated as a church, per the decision of the Armenian community itself. Erdemir argues that Aghtamar served more as a spectacle of religious tolerance rather than the actual practice of such. She uses this example to point to how state engagement with cultural heritage sites can and must symbolize moments and places of genuine multi-faith coexistence. Of course, this is increasingly difficult when the government’s conquest motif brands any non-Sunni or non-ethnically Turkish community as second-class citizens.
Aykan Erdemir, who is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was also formerly a member of the Turkish Parliament. According to him, there is no quick fix on the horizon, and many of the structural problems will remain. He noted that if the ongoing narrative and atmosphere continues, Turkey will soon “end up with Christian sites and no Christians.” To him, a key issue would be training more faith leaders, which the continued closure of the Halki Theological Seminary hinders. Moreover, policies should pursue restorative justice, undo past wrongs, and acknowledge that wrongs occurred in the first place, through official apologies and proper compensation.
Unfortunately, the current state ideology does not rely on logical reasoning, so its proponents see the small community of Christians as a real threat. That is why Vergili, member of the European Syriac Union, notes that the active participation of Christian communities in the political process of the country is vital for those same communities, so that greater attention might be brought to the problems that they face.
All in all, those who want change in Turkey must realize the need for greater inclusivity when building an opposition against Erdogan. In fact, Aykan Erdemir asserts that structurally “this is a moment in which finding common ground and working together must trump the majoritarian politics” that hurt Turkey.