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Senior Catholic Church Official Urges Turkey to Counter "Institutional Christianophobia"

Prejudice 'blights Turkey.' A SENIOR Catholic Church official has criticised the lack of religious rights in Turkey and urged the European Union to do more to counter "institutional Christianophobia" in the country.

"In Turkey, a country which defines itself as a secular democracy, religious freedom exists only on paper," said Archbishop Edmond Erhat, the Vatican's Nuncio to Ankara. "Although it is safeguarded by the constitution, the facts show this isn't applied. There's reticence and resistance towards putting this freedom into practice. It seems a strategy is being worked out for not allowing Christians the same liberty enjoyed by non-Christian religions in Europe."

The Lebanese-born nuncio was speaking in the run-up to the EU's planned opening of accession talks with Turkey in October. In an interview with Italy's ANSA newsagency, he said the 32,000-member Catholic minority, which has vicariates in Istanbul and Anatolia and an archdiocese at Izmir, had been demanding juridical recognition since 1970, while Protestant denominations with Turkish members were frequently accused of "proselytism" and "threatening national unity".

He added that Turkish officials had repeatedly reneged on promises to allow the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul's Phanar suburb to reopen its theological faculty, which was forcibly closed in the early 1970s, as well as the right to make essential repairs to its parish churches.

Christians have often complained of pressure in Turkey, most of whose 67 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. The country's Islamic-led government has pledged to improve religious rights as a condition for accession to the EU in 2015, although most Christian groups expressed scepticism about a new 2002 religious rights law.

In a November 2004 statement, the Commission of EU Bishops' Conferences (COMECE) rejected claims that Turkey's Muslim majority could prove an "obstacle" to EU membership, but cautioned that the country should be "required to correct shortcomings" before accession talks. However, the Pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, warned in a 2004 interview that Turkey's EU membership would "contradict Europe's Christian character". He also rejected claims in a book of papers, published last week in Italy, that "any state which makes the cultural criteria of the Enlightenment and laicism its own can belong to Europe".

Meanwhile, despite his firm opposition to Turkey's accession to the EU, the Pope has been invited to Turkey by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Patriarch Bartolomeos, the Oecumenical Patriarch, said the visit has not yet been confirmed, but a positive response to the invitation has been received. "We are planning to host the Pope in November, but neither his reply nor the date is certain yet. If he comes I will take him to Cappadocia region for sure," he said, referring to the site where early Christian churches were located inside caves.


Jonathan Luxmoore

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