August 31, 2009

Turkish Prime Minister Visits Orthodox Monastery

Erdoğan Open on Minorities, Makes First Visit to Disputed Patriarchate Buildings

Asia News
Istanbul, Turkey
August 20, 2009

Prime Minister makes surprise visit to Bartholomew I and Büyükada Island, home to buildings owned by the Patriarchate, seized by the Turkish government, but recognised as Orthodox Church property by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Turkish prime minister continues on his path as a Janus-faced leader, in favour of democracy and minority rights on the one hand and playing the Turkish nationalist card on the other.

An important event took place on 15 August, feast day of the Dormition (Assumption) of Mary. For the first time a Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visited the orphanage and monastery of Ayia Yorgi (Saint George) of Kudunas on Büyükada (Prince or Foremost) Island in the Sea of Marmara.

Although each April Muslims come on pilgrimage to the reputedly ‘miraculous’ monastery, the importance of Erdoğan’s visit lies in a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which in June 2008 attributed ownership of the disputed property to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

On his arrival Erdoğan and four of his cabinet ministers was met by Patriarch Bartholomew I who welcomed them. The prime minister’s visit, the first one ever by a Turkish head of government to either building, is seen by many as an implicit recognition of the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Just before the meeting with Bartholomew, Erdoğan had lunch with representatives of Turkey’s religious minorities (Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Assyrian Orthodox and Catholic), invited by the administration that run the Princes’ Islands, a group of islands inhabited in the past by non-Muslims.

The prime minister told the minority leaders that he hoped that his presence “could help find a solution to the difficult issues that minorities face in the country since the principles of our party, the AKP, are against every form of discrimination, be it regional, religious or ethnic.”

“In our country there should be no differences between the various ethnic groups like the Kurds, Laz, Circassians, or Georgians,” he said, adding that “as a secular state Turkey does have some shortcomings but it also has the capacity to overcome these shortcomings. And we shall do all we can to fulfill the tasks we have undertaken.”

In an ecumenical spirit, Erdoğan cited what could be considered the essence of the Mevlevi Order1 namely that “my neighbour must be met with love because he too was created by God.”

In ending his address Erdoğan cited a Persian saying: “They gathered, talked and dispersed.’ We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this.”

“He gave us a lot of hope and so we are optimistic,” Patriarch Bartholomew I told AsiaNews when asked to comment Erdoğan’s visit and words. “Let us hope that with the help of Our Lady everything works out in the end. His [Erdoğan’s] presence honoured us and gave us an opportunity to directly voice our concerns even if he already knows them.”

Lastly, “We invited the prime minister to come to the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and to Halki,” the patriarch said. “He thanked us for that.”

In covering the visit Turkish newspapers described the prime minister’s move as the second initiative taken by his party to further democratisation.

In Istanbul’s diplomatic circles the gesture is seen as important, as something of great significance, but it must be viewed in light of Erdoğan’s Janus-faced reputation2.

For instance, by December of this year, the prime minister must report on Turkey’s progress in meeting demands for European Union membership. He will have very little to show though, for little has been achieved since the 2007 parliamentary elections, which is a great disappointment since his party successfully used the EU membership in its campaign against Turkey’s Kemalist establishment, centred on the military, currently paralysed by the Ergenekon affair3.

This said, diplomatic sources have also noted Erdoğan’s other face, one, which “with ill-concealed nostalgia, hints at the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire thanks to the new trans-Caucasian pipelines backed by Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, with Turkey as hub, now even willing to acknowledge (on its own terms) the Armenian genocide.

The election of a nationalist AKP leader, Mehmet Ali Şahin, as speaker of the Turkish parliament in replacement of the more progressive Köksal Toptan is another sign of this two-faced policy.

Minority leaders have reacted to Ergogan’s visit to Büyükada Island with cautious optimism. “Time will tell,” said Father Dositheos, an Orthodox priest.

Devlet Bahçeli, head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), instead reacted angrily to the visit, telling the prime minister that the European Union really wants to destroy Turkish identity and undermine the integrity of the Turkish state.

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also said that by seeking international legitimacy Erdoğan is trying to shield himself from problems within his party.


1 A Shia fraternity founded in the 13th century in ancient Iconium, where the Christian presence was strong, and influenced the Mevlevi Order and the Alevi.

2 The god Janus is known for his two faces, hence terms like two-faced, Janus, Janus-faced. Erdoğan has been dubbed Janus-faced because of contradictions in his politics.

3 Ergenekon is the name of an underground nationalist organisation accused of terrorism with close ties to the Turkish military. Last year some prominent individuals were charged with encouraging attacks and stirring up popular unrest in order to promote a coup.