Istanbul, Turkey - Today's Zaman recently reported on 'Who is the pope, who is the ecumenical patriarch?' by Orhan Kemal Cengiz. Cengiz, a lawyer, human rights defender and newspaper columnist, was a featured speaker at the Order of Saint Andrew's 2nd International Conference on Religious Freedom in Berlin, Germany in December 2013.
Who is the pope, who is the ecumenical patriarch?
by Orhan Kemal Cengiz
If you do not know Turkey, you may get the impression that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government have huge admiration for the pope but are allergic to the ecumenical patriarch. Namely, you may be very confused how and why the Turkish government differentiates so tremendously in its treatment of the religious leaders of the Orthodox and Catholic sects of Christianity.
In Turkey the pope was treated like he is one of the most important statesmen in the world. Erdoğan met him at the gates of his palace after waiting there impatiently for a long time. We saw pictures of how Erdoğan happily extended his forehead to be kissed by the pope.
While the religious leader of the Catholics was welcomed like that, the religious leader of the other sect of Christianity, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, is being regarded somehow as a figure whose counterpart in Turkey is the district governor of Eyüp, to which the patriarchate is considered to be attached.
President Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), who treated the pope as if he is the president of the United States, refuse to recognize the ecumenical character of the Greek Orthodox Church in İstanbul. They say it is just the Greek Orthodox Church, namely that the patriarchate only represents a handful of Orthodox Christians in İstanbul.
President Erdoğan and the AK Party, who are very respectful of the pope, do not even allow the reopening of the Halki Theological School, from which many of the ecumenical patriarchs graduated. They say they will open the school on the condition that a mosque is opened in Athens. They easily overlook the fact that a school and a church are not counterparts to each other and that there is no such thing as “reciprocity” in the field of human rights. The Halki Theological School has nothing to do with a mosque in Athens.
So, the question remains wide open. Why did the same government that treated the pope with so much respect put the ecumenical patriarch in such a difficult position? Why does the Turkish government differentiate so much in its treatment of different sects of Christianity?
And, ironically, if you ask the members of the AK Party how the Orthodox differ from the Catholics, most probably very few of them would be able to answer your question in a satisfactory manner. Therefore, we can say this discriminatory treatment of different sects of Christianity has nothing to do with theological matters.
The AK Party is just demonstrating the old state reflexes that regard the ecumenical patriarchate and religious minorities of this country as a threat.
And I believe there is another part of this story. Like individuals who have low self-esteem, states and societies only pay respect to those who are distant from them, who are outsiders and so on. The pope is from another country; he is a foreigner, whereas the ecumenical patriarch is from Turkey and is someone living in our district.
I believe one day Turkey will treat the ecumenical patriarch as it treats the pope now -- when this country has real confidence, when there is real self-esteem, and when there is real freedom of religion in this country.