Turkey’s President Erdogan is already facing international calls to respect human rights in Turkey following last weekend’s failed coup. Now he’s also being encouraged to champion the rights of Christians living in the country as well. The call is coming from the Anglican Church’s venerable man in Istanbul, Canon Ian Sherwood, who for 28 years has been chaplain of the British consulate there and priest of the Crimean Memorial Church in the city. ‘As long-centuries established Christians in Turkey we are alarmed at how life is evolving in Turkey,’ says Sherwood, who warns that the climate of tolerance has changed in the country, which is more than 99 per cent Muslim, mainly Sunni. ‘We wish Turkey peace and tolerance – the same tolerance that most societies west of Turkey enjoy.’
Under Erdogan, Turkey has faced criticism for what many see as its lacklustre efforts to oppose the rise of Islamic State just across the border in Syria. Liberals and political opponents alike in Turkey have also attacked Erdogan’s conservative Islamist policy agenda. Sherwood himself doesn’t blame Erdogan, nor his Islamist Justice and Development party government for the cooling of the cultural climate for Christians in Turkey. Instead he appeals to the devoutly Sunni president to protect the religious convictions of others living in the country – much in the same way as Anglican leaders here stand up for the religious rights of non-Christians in Britain.
In recent years Sherwood says that he has witnessed a rising undercurrent of intolerance towards Christians and other non-Muslims in Turkey – and this goes further than boys standing on the wall of his churchyard shouting, ‘Allahu Akbar’. The church, a favourite of visiting tourists and expats in the city, was built after the Crimean War in the 1850s to mark the valour of British servicemen who died in the conflict, and is just a short walk from Taksim Square where last weekend hundreds of angry supporters of Erdogan violently attacked soldiers taking part in the coup. They, too, shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’.
‘I’m not optimistic about the plight of Christians in Turkey,’ says Sherwood, who also reports that many indigenous Christians are now trying to leave the country. ‘Bear in mind we’ve had a Roman Catholic Bishop murdered, we’ve had clergy threatened, we’ve had one priest murdered 10 years ago. Any Christian leader, if they’re being honest, would say that some of what’s going on is quite alarming.’
Among a series of attacks on Christian clerics over the last decade, a Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro, was shot in the back of the head while praying in his church at the Black Sea town of Trabzon by a teenager with ultra-nationalist sympathies in a religiously motivated attack. This was at the same time as worldwide protests greeted the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. ‘One wishes that one had equal rights with all other communities that have existed in Turkey for centuries,’ says Sherwood. ‘We [Anglicans] have been there since 1582 and yet we’ve not been able to build churches except for a short period in the nineteenth century. And now it’s very rare that you hear of a Christian community being able to build a church. Most of the established places where you have church buildings have to host other Christian communities because those communities aren’t allowed to build churches.’
Sherwood’s appeal comes as Erdogan reasserts his authority following last weekend’s intervention by part of Turkey’s armed forces, traditionally a bulwark of Kemalist secularism against Islamic rule in the country. It has used force or exerted pressure several times, most notably in 1960 but as recently as 1997, to halt Islamist governments in Ankara from undermining the non-religious foundations of the modern Turkish state, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
Yet if alarm bells are ringing, they don’t appear to be sounding quite so resonantly from the Foreign Office, which has been more vocal about the erosion of press freedoms in Erdogan’s Turkey than the protection of minority religions. That said, just this month, the then Europe Minister David Lidington insisted in response to a parliamentary question that the FCO was holding regular discussions with Turkey on issues concerning freedom of religion. ‘The Turkish government continues to improve protections for all religious minorities in Turkey,’ he said in a written answer. If this is the case, it sounds like someone should inform the Christian clergy in Turkey. Either way, it remains to be seen whether President Erdogan will speak up for non-Muslim religious minorities in Turkey.