In early December, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presided over the opening of a new synagogue, mosque and church - the last partitioned into Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox sections - in the Mediterranean resort area of Belek.
It was a rather flamboyant gesture on Erdogan's part, designed to convince skeptical Europeans that the secular but largely Muslim nation of nearly 70 million people practices a religious tolerance that makes it worthy of membership in the European Union. "Beyond its symbolic importance, this project gives the message of peace and brotherhood to the whole world," Erdogan said at the ceremony.
On Wednesday in Strasbourg, France, the European Parliament voted 407-262, with 29 abstentions, to urge EU leaders to begin membership talks with Turkey.
Those 25 EU heads of government gave Turkey the official green light for consideration in a two-day summit in Brussels, but the membership process could take years to complete. A key issue is the degree to which Turkey is ready to conform to religious-freedom standards as they exist in Europe.
Erdogan, who is described as a devout Muslim, is anxious that Turkey cast its future with a secularized but historically Christian Europe. And Turkey has undertaken a number of human-rights reforms, including abolishing the death penalty and acting to rein in torture, along with political and economic measures. But the long scars of history and the short fuses of contemporary events threaten the effort - including the precarious and fragile situation of the Orthodox Patriarchate, based in Istanbul and the headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I; and the killing in November of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, by a man alleged to be a militant Muslim.
On Monday, for example, the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, based in Geneva, discussed what they called "new pressures and difficulties being brought upon the Ecumenical Patriarchate."
"We are pained to read of the public criticisms and attacks being made upon yourself and upon the Christian community in Turkey. Such hostility must be very hard to bear, with the added sense of isolation that it brings," said the letter, signed by the Rev. Samuel Kobia, the WCC general secretary, and the Rev. Keith Clements, the general secretary of the CEC.
France's Roman Catholic bishops were cautioning their government on the Turkish bid, urging President Jacques Chirac to make full respect for religious freedom a precondition for opening EU membership talks.
"Certain basic rights, especially religious freedom, are not fully respected in Turkey, despite the reforms undertaken," said a statement issued by Bishop Jean-Pierre Ricard, the head of the French bishops conference.
The slaying of Van Gogh in the Netherlands on Nov. 2 has inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment among Europeans.
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