According to the Armenian Patriarch in Turkey, Mesrob II, there is freedom of religion in Turkey. However, he is critical of inequality in the way the different religious communities are treated. Hülya Sancak spoke to him
Istanbul is constantly changing. Do you like this city?
Mesrob II: The Kumkapi quarter, where the Patriarchate is situated, has changed a great deal. A lot of migrants from south-east Anatolia came and settled here. Kumkapi is no longer the way it once was, but I can't do without Istanbul. No matter where I've been, I always wanted to come back.
Socio-culturally speaking, do you believe that in Istanbul there has been a negative development over the past ten years?
Mesrob II: It is no longer as it once was. I grew up in Taksim. In our mahalle (quarter) all minorities – Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Turks – all lived together peacefully. They always used to greet each other cordially; they celebrated feast days together, too. In that sense there has been what you could call a deterioration.
What is the status of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul among the Orthodox churches of the world?
Mesrob II: There are 23 patriarchates throughout the world and we are one of them. The Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul is a recognized patriarch throughout the world, as well as in the various denominations.
What do you, as a theologian, think of political Islam? Can there be such a thing as a moderate Islam?
Mesrob II: The substance of the religion cannot change. It is simply what it is. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. But when one tries to politicise religion, one causes it to degenerate. It becomes arrogant and starts to oppress people. The dominant religion and its symbols exercise power over other faiths.
Is Islam the only religion that is politicised?
Mesrob II: In the past, Christianity too was politicised. The Crusades are an example of this. So Christianity too does not have a 'spotless' past.
Are there major differences between the great Abrahamic religions, the 'religions of the book'?
Mesrob II: In essence there are no major differences between the three great religions. Their main teachings are also not so very different from one another.
Do problems only arise because of different interpretations?
Mesrob II: When one politicises religion, it creates problems. Not attempting dialogue with others also creates problems.
Is there freedom of religion and freedom of worship in Turkey?
Mesrob II: We can use our places of worship when and however we want. Nobody dictates to us. In this context we have our freedom.
What has changed since the AKP has been in government?
Mesrob II: As I keep saying, I notice a deterioration. Increasingly, there is a wave of intolerance spreading across Turkey. Take for example the murders of people of different faiths or opinions, such as the attack in Malatya, or the murders of Hrant Dink and Father Santoro. All these things are an indication of the current trend of intolerance in Turkey. I always say that "that is not Turkey".
Some people are worried about the future of laicism. Are you also worried?
Mesrob II: Nobody can abolish laicism in Turkey. Even if they were to dare to try, I don't believe they would succeed. Laicism has its roots in [the] Turkey [of Atatürk]. I don't believe that some political party is able to abolish it. We grow up with the teachings of laicism. The state is not permitted to get involved in religious affairs, and it is supposed to take the same position with regard to all faiths.
But to what extent is this actually practised? There is a ministry for religious affairs, which means that the state does in fact have a particular stance.
So there is in fact an official religion: Islam…?
Mesrob II: There is indeed a ministry for it, and all Islamic clerics are financed by this ministry. Other religious communities, on the other hand, do not receive any support. I wish there were an institution that treated all religions in the same way.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the Orthodox churches. Is the Armenian Church one of them?
Mesrob II: We belong to the Eastern Oriental Orthodox Churches. For us, the Fener Patriarch (Bartholomew I) is not ecumenical. Our churches do not require anything like this; we are a non-autocephalous church.
What differences are there between the Armenian and the Greek Orthodox churches?
Mesrob II: We belong to the Eastern Oriental churches. The Assyrian, Ethiopian, Indian, Coptic and Armenian Churches are all part of the same family. Historically, these churches tried to defend themselves against Byzantine imperialism. They retained their individual characteristics. Among them, the Armenian Church was founded in 301 A.D., which is to say: much earlier than Byzantium.
You live in a Muslim society. Do you have any problems in your dialogue with the people?
Mesrob II: No, neither Armenians nor Assyrians have any problems with the Turkish population. They are fully integrated into each other. Armenians live alongside Turks, so they do not have any communication problems.
In the recent attacks on Christians, it is noticeable that the perpetrators are only able to put forward primitive and unfounded arguments in justification of their deeds. Can it be said that the Turkish educational system lacks some essential elements that could help to improve understanding on both sides?
Mesrob II: Of course it is a result of deficient education. Anyone who knows Istanbul also knows its history, and knows that minorities are part of the city. On the other hand, schoolbooks as well as religious books repeatedly use inflammatory terms and appellations for non-Muslims, such as 'unbelievers', or 'heathens'. Terms like these are naturally very unpleasant.
Is it also in order to repair these educational deficits that you want a chair at Istanbul University?
Mesrob II: Yes, but I want it for others too, not only for myself. A chair like that should appeal to all the other faiths. There is an Islamic theological faculty. That's where I wanted to have a chair. That way all those who want to inform themselves about other religions could acquire the relevant knowledge. The chair would then be a university one and also be at the disposal of the Turkish Muslim students. I imagined a universal chair, open to all.
Will you be able to implement this plan?
Mesrob II: I must, because we need priests and language teachers for our schools. For that, we need a Chair of Theology and Linguistics.
What do you think of the proposal for a seminary in Heybeliada? This is something the Greek Patriarchate wants.
Mesrob II: My offer also includes Heybeliada; Heybeliada can be part of the university chair as well.
Why is something like this not accepted in Turkey?
Mesrob II: That is something I cannot understand.
Is it a case of discrimination against minorities?
Mesrob II: There was a draft law about this that was put before parliament by the minorities' foundations. A short time ago it was rejected by the former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. In the official rejection, this was justified as follows: “If minorities are given this many rights, they will want to have even more.”
One is compelled to think that people in Turkey see all minorities as potential enemies. “They could stab us in the back at any time.” There is a phobia about minorities in Turkey. The former president's rejection of the bill strengthens this phobia. My feeling is that people treat minorities as 'internal enemies'.
What are the concerns of the Armenian community in Turkey?
Mesrob II: The thing that disturbs us most is the way the diaspora deals with the subject of 'genocide'. It puts a great strain on our relations with Turkey. Neither Armenia nor Turkey are going to alter their geographic positions. Both countries insist on their own standpoint. These tense relations are disturbing for us.
Of course Armenia should recognise Turkey's borders. That is very important. And the diaspora should at last understand that the form of the current genocide discussion is damaging to Turkish-Armenian relations.
Who judges whether it was, from a historical point of view, a question of deportation or genocide?
Mesrob II: Prime Minister Erdogan had a suggestion about this. Armenian, Turkish, and neutral historians should sit down together and study the facts in detail. I thought this was a very positive attitude. But the Armenian side rejected it, saying that there was nothing to discuss.
If we are speaking in terms of scholarship, we must be prepared and able to speak about everything. In this sense I think that that Armenian side is inflexible.
What is your assessment of Turkey's 'European journey'?
Mesrob II: Integration into Europe is very important for us. I believe very strongly that through this all the laws in Turkey will be revised, and that in doing so Turkey will become a truly democratic country. For this reason I am in favour of membership. I find the negative attitude of states such as France, and also Germany, very surprising. I think they need Turkey. Particularly as a strong military partner.
Do you believe that Turkey can become a member of the EU in the foreseeable future?
Mesrob II: Not in the immediate future – but one day. If Turkey doesn't throw in the towel…
Interview: Hülya Sancak
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
© Qantara.de 2007