The Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia: "Christians’ challenges in today’s Turkey"

The Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia: "Christians’ challenges in today’s Turkey"

By Giorgio Bernardelli/ lastampa.it

Jesuit Father Paolo Bizzeti, “Christian refugees from neighboring countries outnumber the local baptized”.

“Since I became bishop in Turkey, my horizons have widened, I am a little less Europe-centric. I understand that the Middle East is a very complex world, which cannot be reduced to a few slogans...”. Father Paolo Bizzeti has been in the Middle East for over forty years. And almost three have gone by since Pope Francis called him to take the lead of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia in Iskenderun, the ancient Alexandretta in Turkey. The Italian Jesuit, passionate of bible studies, sits on the chair left empty for more than five years after the murder of his predecessor, Monsignor Luigi Padovese. But he is also bishop in a Turkey that has lived through troubled political events, between geopolitical dynamics and internal clashes. And that President Erdogan, who in a little more than a month’s time, will be once again leading ahead of time to the polls in search of a new plebiscite.

Father Bizzeti, how is Turkey living this new electoral eve?
“Today’s Turkey is a country in which major changes are taking place to strengthen its central government. It is certainly a painful process: there are voices of dissent, and there is no point in denying it. Now the President has called these early elections, the focus is all on 24 June: we will see what happens. We must also be careful not to destabilize the country. But it seems to me that the policy of the great powers - the United States, Europe, Russia... – aims at consolidating the country, not destabilizing it”.

There is much concern over the minorities in Turkey today...
“Minorities are in a problematic situation in many parts of the world: Turkey is no exception. And it must also be said that as Christians today we cannot complain about particular negative facts”.

For the Kurds, however, hard times are back...
“We must distinguish terrorist groups from the majority of the Kurdish population, who goes on with their daily lives. Of course, the Kurdish question exists yet it ultimately concerns international politics: a people that lives divided into four countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and seeks its own identity is not easy to guarantee. I do not know how this situation will develop. However, it seems to be a clear example of how the process of destabilization – which has been triggered by the two Gulf Wars and the war in Syria - has had repercussions on many aspects, including these minorities. But the problem is upstream: and is the clash taking place in the Middle East between the major powers. And when a war lasts for years the repercussions are negative for everyone”.

You live a few dozen kilometers from Syria: what is the situation today on that border?
“The borders are completely closed: a 700-kilometres carefully monitored wall has been built. There is therefore no longer an influx of new refugees from Syria. There are, however, those who are already inside the country. It must be said that the Turkish Government has pursued a very generous integration policy with the Syrians. The Iraqis who arrived with the Gulf Wars, who are in a more fragile situation at legal level, experience the problem more harshly”.

The Turkish Government has often spoken about the intention to transfer refugees across the border. Do you think that could really happen?
“I don’t know what can happen; until there is no peace in Syria it is unrealistic to think of a return, likewise for Iraq. Above all, families are marked by heavy traumas: even if peace were to be achieved tomorrow, many would not return because of what has happened to them. Refugees rather dream of going to the West, but the doors are closed as we know. It is the ongoing stalemate that increases their discomfort.”

How do you see the agreements between Turkey and Europe on migrants?
“I haven’t understood them much. They seem to me to be a measure through which Europe is trying to deny the problem. Perhaps something more complex should be invented”.

For example?
“Addressing in a more flexible way the reception of refugees. Today, they cannot even move from one city to another. But what is happening in Turkey is not very different from the scenario of European countries except for the proportions: Turkey has been very generous in receiving a disproportionate number of refugees; the population must also be acknowledged for having made a great effort. Now, however, the situation has been going on for years; so in Turkey as well, there are now protests from the local population. Because if they have no chance of employment integration, their social hardship becomes greater. But I repeat: the generosity and willingness towards refugees on the part of the country is unmatched”.

And in this scenario, how can the presence of Christians be placed?
“We are a small minority, 0.2 per cent, an absolutely negligible share. Our problems have long since the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 actually emptied Turkey of Christians. These are problems that were not adequately addressed a century ago and for which we are still paying the price: that Treaty should be revised today because the historical context has changed. Personally, however, I believe that only miscegenation, the willingness to learn to live together would guarantee peace everywhere. Christians have a moderating function in the Middle East; it is to be hoped that they will remain and not think of solving their problems wither by helping them to flee or driving them away”.

Among the Christians of the Middle East there are many young people: what do they say about the upcoming Synod?
“Young people are among the most disadvantaged groups in the Middle East. They live in very difficult situations and at the same time in the new world of internet and social media. They should really be listened to. Not only Christians, but all young people in general. Also, because they share the same problems: peace, the need of a future, of a job, respect for individual identity, religious freedom...”.

What remains today in Anatolia of Monsignor Padovese’s legacy?
“His memory is alive, but six years without a bishop have caused a strong downfall in the vicariate. We are trying to rebuild from the bottom, through modest means, because the ground forces in terms of pastoral workers are very limited. For example, the priests in my vicariate are nine in all in a territory that is larger than Italy. And now we are also in charge of the Christians among the refugees”.

Where do they come from and what do they represent for your local Church today?
“By now, the Christian refuges are more than the native ones: Iraqis, Syrians, but also Afghans, Iranians. For example, we would need Arabic-speaking shepherds. Many people are fleeing Iran and Afghanistan because there is no doubt that they can enjoy greater religious freedom in Turkey. Yet our local communities are struggling to accept these new presences, there is a language barrier. And then normally these refugees who arrive in Anatolia because of their faith do not think of Turkey as a place of arrival: they would like to emigrate elsewhere. Today, however, they are no longer able to find ways out. They are a challenge also for our Churches”.

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 13:06
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