With faith and hope, Turkey builds a new identity


How the Turkish parliament grapples with granting rights to minorities, from the Greek Orthodox Church seeking legal status to the large Kurdish population, will determine how quickly Turkey moves closer to its goal of membership in the European Union.

"It is unimaginable not to have legal status," said the ecumenical patriarch. "We've been here for so many centuries. So this is of concern."

Still, there have been many symbolic changes over the past few years. Here are a few of the easy symbolic touchstones:

Turkish women are no longer harassed for wearing a head scarf.

Turkish television runs Kurdish situation comedies, though 20 years ago the whispered suggestion of programming for the minority Kurds would have landed you in prison, suspected of supporting terrorism.

It is no longer a political kiss of death for a Turkish politician to express faith, something American presidents do with regularity, even if they attend church only during election season.

Yet in every government office and on the walls of buildings, you can see posters and paintings glorifying Kemal Ataturk, the brilliant and ruthless nationalist who considered religion and multiethnic diversity to be enemies as he conceived the modern Turkish state.

There are many reasons for change here, and even a series of general columns can't hope to address them all. It would take volumes written by wiser people who have spent their lifetimes studying this extremely complicated and diverse nation.

But economic and democratic liberalization have gone hand in hand with dialogue, and Bartholomew has been working to build it with an Islamic Turkish theologian who now lives in Pennsylvania, is relatively unknown in America and yet has vast influence here.

His name is Muhammed Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen preaches interfaith acceptance and peace. His followers number in the millions, in Turkey and across the world.

Bartholomew refers to his friend by the affectionate nickname of "Hoja Effendi."

"He builds bridges, and religion should build bridges," said the patriarch. "This is why we need the dialogues. Not to have religious fanatics who divide people. The idea is to bring people of faith together for the benefit of humankind."

As he spoke, the Islamic call to prayer erupted from a neighborhood mosque outside. The sound filled the patriarch's office. It echoed and echoed along the walls.


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