ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Christian pastor Behnan Konutgan knows a little about religious tolerance in Turkey.
After a life spent translating the Bible into Turkish and defending his faith in a secular country with an inherited suspicion toward Christianity, the 55-year-old Protestant feels his efforts are bearing little fruit.
“This year we have seen rising prejudice against Christians. Islamic and nationalistic sentiment is growing, probably because of the Iraq War, and people are angry,” he said in his office, with no sign, hidden away in a rundown district of old Istanbul.
Popular mistrust of all Christians among majority Muslim Turks has also risen after Pope Benedict made comments seen as critical of Islam and the air of suspicion has been getting worse ahead of a four-day visit from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church beginning on Tuesday.
At the 100-year-old Immanuel Church in the same building he preaches each Sunday to some 70 Turkish evangelical Protestants, a typically small community in the Muslim country, where there are some 100,000 Christians out of a population of 73 million.
While freedom of worship is generally respected, there are still restrictions and the potential for discrimination, according to the European Union which Turkey hopes to join.
Parliament approved an EU-sought foundations law designed to improve property rights of non-Muslim religious minorities this month. But this appears to have fallen short of expectations.
“We are not able to open schools or train priests. This is something that the state must do and reforms are under way but the foundations law does not go very far,” said Father Francois Yakan, the patriarchal vicar of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
The EU has also shown concern at attacks against non-Muslim clergy and places of worship. Catholic Priest Andrea Santoro was murdered in a church in Trabzon on the Black Sea in February.
Christians say tensions have been inflamed, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, by the Iraq War, Danish caricatures of Prophet Mohammad and comments by the Pope on Islam.
Suspicion of Christianity has roots deep in Ottoman history and was heightened by later efforts of European powers to carve up the waning empire and give Christians more rights.
In a study on religion by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) 60 percent of respondents believed that the work of non-Muslim missionaries should be restricted.
“This reflects a lack of self-confidence. They have this idea that there is this plan in the United States and Europe to convert them to Christianity,” said Associate Professor Ali Carkoglu of Sabanci University who co-authored the study.
While Christians are regarded as foreign, the land where Turkey is located had a key role in Christian history. Saints Peter and Paul preached there before going to Rome and Saint John the Evangelist preached and died in Ephesus.
Constantinople, the former name of Istanbul, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for more than a 1,000 years until it was conquered by Muslim forces in 1453 and became the Ottoman seat.
That history is reflected in the country’s diverse Christian minorities which range from Greek Orthodox, Syriac and Armenian communities to Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations.
Now it is generally the newer evangelical communities which attract the most media attention over their proselytism.
Two Christian converts went on trial last week on charges of insulting the Turkish identity and inciting religious hatred in the course of their missionary work.
Aside from the issue of missionary work, much of the controversy relates to the situation of the Greek Orthodox church and its Patriarchate, which is based in Istanbul.
The EU wants Ankara to reopen an Orthodox seminary to train clergy. Turkey has not yet found a legal formula in line with its secular principles and acceptable to Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians.
Analysts acknowledge that the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has made considerable progress generally on political and economic reforms since taking in 2001, but that more still needs to be done in the area of religious freedom.
The EU has for example highlighted the failure of the foundations law to provide for compensation to those whose properties have already been sold to third parties since being taken over by the state or other entities.
Despite these worries, Konutgan is hopeful that the Pope’s visit will help dispel some of the growing negative sentiment.
“This is a great opportunity and Turkey should use it well. There will be protests which is fine, but people should not go too far as this would harm Turkey in the eyes of the world.”