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Turkey at odds with faithful

Secular state limits religious expression

HEYBELIADA, Turkey -- Atop a pine-covered hill on this island in the Sea of Marmara, Metropolitan Apostolos, a gray-haired Greek Orthodox bishop, tends the empty, echoing halls of a seminary shuttered for 35 years by government order, dreaming of the day it will reopen to replenish the dwindling ranks of the clergy in Turkey.

An hour's ferry ride away, Fatma Saglam, an observant Muslim, unwraps her headscarf every morning and walks bareheaded into her bustling Istanbul university, reluctantly choosing education over piety because the Turkish state policy forbids wearing the traditional religious headcovering on campus.

Saglam and Apostolos, both Turkish citizens, each represent communities yearning for religious expression denied them by their government. Observant Muslims and Christian minorities feel the effects, to different degrees and in different ways, from limits on religious life. In recent months both communities have stepped up pressure for change by appealing to world opinion, to Pope Benedict XVI on his recent visit, and especially to the European Union as it weighs Turkey's membership bid.

The Turkish state was founded in 1923 on the principle of subordinating religion to secular nationalism. State policies -- from banning headscarves in government buildings to closing private religious schools -- regulate all aspects of religion in an effort to concentrate the secular government's power.

For Muslims, the government trains, hires, and fires imams. For the tiny Christian and Jewish minorities, the government has used a web of regulations to close and confiscate places of worship, and doesn't allow individuals or institutions to inherit property.

To the Turkish government and many non observant Turks, appeals for religious freedom strike at the defining principle of the modern Turkish state, the "secularism" imposed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation's first president, who forced Turks to abandon many of their traditions as part of a campaign to Westernize the country.

Turkey doesn't define secularism the way many democracies do, as separation of church and state, said Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor of international relations at Boston University who studies Turkey and serves on a US government panel that monitors religious freedom. "Instead, it's state control over religion," she said.

Turkish officials argue that with more religious liberty, the nation's Muslim majority could slide toward fundamentalism and its minuscule Christian minorities could erode Turkish identity or sovereignty. But those assertions are increasingly being challenged inside and outside the country.

With Turkey under pressure from Europe to acknowledge past and present repression of Christian minorities, and facing growing domestic opposition from Islamist political parties, the state's curbs on religions freedom make it harder for Turkey to present itself as a model democracy bridging Europe and the majority-Muslim world.

During his visit Nov. 28 to Dec.1, the pope issued a joint statement with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, calling on the EU to uphold the "inalienable right" of religious freedom and to protect minorities as it expands.

Meanwhile, the restrictions affect citizens' lives every day.

Outside Marmara University one recent morning, Saglam, 20, wearing a trendy, red-stitched denim jacket, an army-green skirt, and white headscarf that she would remove soon on her way to a math exam, said she hoped that Turkey's EU ambitions would someday allow her to wear the veil as freely as women in Britain and many other European countries.

"I'm against pressure, especially at a university, a modern place, a civilized place," she said.

Later that day, Apostolos, 50, sat nearly alone in the cavernous Halki theological seminary on Heybeliada, where ping-pong tables stood silent in the ornately tiled hallways.

"I can remember the noises of the place, the students rushing around," the bishop said.

The school trained generations of Orthodox leaders. But in 1971 -- the year that Apostolos graduated from the seminary's high school and was about to start studying there to be a priest -- the government shut it down along with other private religious schools. The closures followed a military coup, amid a crackdown on opposition groups.

Apostolos said it was too early to tell whether pressure from religious leaders and the European Union would help push the government to allow the school to reopen. In the meantime, with donations from Greek Orthodox faithful around the world, he and his deacon, Dorotheos, have installed modern bathrooms and enough new electrical wiring to support banks of computers and wireless Internet -- ready to open the minute it gets permission.

Dorotheos, 68, who is the only other Turkish Greek Orthodox cleric at the seminary, said the two will keep working in the face of despair. But Apostolos fears that the restrictions on the Greek community are threatening the last remnants of Greek Orthodox life in Istanbul -- the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey has dwindled to 3,000, from 180,000 in 1923.

For the approximately 99 percent of Turks who are Muslim, all aspects of religious expression are regulated by the Diyanet, the religious affairs ministry. Sermons are supposed to be written by imams higher up in the ministry bureaucracy, although some mosques have bucked the rule lately.

Most rules are strictly enforced. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a woman elected to the Legislature, wore her headscarf into Parliament and was ordered to leave.

For Turkey's religious minorities -- including about 68,000 Armenian Orthodox, 20,000 Catholics, 23,000 Jews, and 3,000 Greek Orthodox -- the laws are far more restrictive. Many of the minorities see them as part of a Turkish history of trying to drive them out that includes the Armenian genocide and waves of expulsion of Greek Orthodox Christians.

Since 1923, hundreds of millions of dollars in property belonging to Christians or their churches, especially Greek Orthodox, have been expropriated, Prodromou said, despite protections guaranteed to religious minorities under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that defined Turkey's borders.

Turkey has used regulations -- from laws governing foundations to municipal building permits to discriminatory property laws -- to "effectively disenfranchise economically" the Orthodox and Jewish minorities, Prodromou said. Bureaucrats can close schools and churches if they rule they are unnecessary because the communities they serve are too small.

The very institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchy of the Orthodox Church is threatened, its clergy say. Turkey says that the patriarch must be a Turkish citizen, but since all the religious schools have been shuttered, the Greek Orthodox fear that in a few decades there will be no one eligible to serve.

Supporters of the government policy say that if Turkey allows Christians to open seminary schools, they will have to let Islamic groups open schools, which is prohibited. The government says this would open the door to extremist teachers from such places as Saudi Arabia.

But Prodromou says the government could reopen the Halki seminary without setting a new precedent for Muslims, since they have the opportunity to study religion in state schools. And Turkey can give Muslims more freedom while keeping a tight rein on any extremist Islamists by enforcing democratic laws and visa controls, she said.

"There's no reason that having freedom of education where there happens to be a Muslim majority leads inevitably to Islamic fundamentalism," she said.

For now, Turkey's religious citizens navigate the rules delicately.

As students stream into the University of Marmara, women in headscarves dart into a white trailer just inside the gate. Crowding in, they take off their scarves, brush their hair, glance in the small mirrors lining the walls, and then face a choice.

Many suppress their feelings of nakedness and go bareheaded. Others, in a mix of protest and practicality, put on wigs that flaunt their artificiality with coarse textures and unnatural shapes.

Hacer Akgunler, 20, pulled the hood of her sweater over her head, but some of her hair still showed.

" I don't feel like I am Hacer," she said, her purple floral scarf folded and sandwiched between her study notes on language acquisition. "I feel like something is missing."

She knows some women who for go a university education rather than expose their hair in what they consider a violation of Muslim practice. But, she said, "If we don't study, they will think, 'You wear a scarf and you don't have a brain.' "

Anne Barnard can be reached at

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