Story behind the story in Istanbul

Constantinople5Press reports are starting to filter in on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey for the Feast of St. Andrew.

This is one of those cases in which there is a story that will be on the news and then there are other stories in the background, perhaps even buried or ignored in the mainstream coverage of the story. However, I have hopes that this will not be the case.

Why? Check out the opening of the initial report from Ian Fisher of The New York Times:

Pope Benedict XVI originally wanted to visit Turkey a year ago, for one quiet night, and Islam had nothing to do with it.

It was meant as a trip to help heal the 1,000-year rift with the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians. The pope would celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the worldwide Orthodox Church, who lives in Istanbul, then return to Rome.

But for various reasons having to do with its complex relationship with Orthodox Christianity, the Turkish government protested. No doubt the nation’s leaders wish they had approved a visit then. Now, after the pope’s speech two months ago that many interpreted as suggesting that Islam was prone to violence, the trip that starts Tuesday has become far more complicated.

An even earlier report in the Los Angeles Times managed to balance the same two topics. Here is a key paragraph:

The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for membership for Turkey in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a “Greek agent” seeking to reestablish Christian influence in this country.

The question, of course, is whether the tiny Christian minority in Turkey can be granted any kind of religious liberty without provoking violence among Islamists. Then again, how does Turkey hope to enter the EU if it cannot enforce the rule of law and basic human rights, such as religious liberty for minority groups?

So there is reason to hope for good journalism in a tough situation. Now we have to see if the 3,000 or so reporters making this trip into Turkey can meet the test.

Any event that even hints at Islamic relations and/or the European Union is going to grab the headlines. That’s a given. But it helps to remember that the original purpose of this trip was to push for religious liberty for minority groups in the allegedly secular state of Turkey. At the same time, this pope — as was the case with Pope John Paul II — is trying to test the edges of ecumenical relations with the other great ancient Christian communion, Eastern Orthodoxy.

Reporters who have been following that story for a decade or two will be paying close attention to any hints Big Ben may make about his concepts of limited forms of papal authority in the East or even a return to a first-among-equals relationship with the other patriarches in the ancient churches of the East. At the very least, he may try to better define the “impaired communion” that exists between East and West.

Here is a good summary paragraph about what is at stake from Catholic scholar George Weigel, writing in Newsweek:

There is … a link between what Benedict XVI thinks he’s doing during his Turkish pilgrimage and the world’s expectations of another episode in the confrontation between the West and Islam. That link involves the dramatic restrictions under which Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must operate, thanks to the obstacles put in the patriarchate’s path by the Turkish government — restrictions that raise serious questions about Turkey’s ability to meet EU human-rights standards. Should the papal visit to the Phanar (sometimes referred to as the “Orthodox Vatican,” much to the aggravation of the Orthodox) focus world attention on the gaps in Turkey’s practice of religious freedom, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be improved — and so, in consequence, would Turkey’s chances of a closer relationship to the EU.

Phanar2A key moment will occur when the pope passes the famous locked front gate of the Phanar (pictured), which — as I noted in 2004 — was

… (Welded) shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

What will Benedict XVI do at this door? Will he pray there? Leave flowers? Choose that site as a backdrop for his remarks on religious liberty? Stay tuned.

Anyone interested in the original purpose of this papal journey should read Weigel’s essay. Also, for those interested in the picky details, the Vatican has already posted some of the details on the ecumenical services.

UPDATE: I did not know, when I wrote this, that Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher had published a column in The Dallas Morning News today based on the same theme as this post. By all means, read it all. Here’s a key passage:

Benedict has a clearer eye about Islam than his predecessor, who rarely missed an opportunity to abase himself before Muslims for the sake of improved relations and received little for his efforts. This pope is different. He is not prepared to pretend that it is of no matter that in Europe Muslims are free to worship as they please and to build mosques at will, while in Turkey and the Muslim world, Christians are generally not permitted to build churches and face state-sanctioned discrimination. It is better, says Benedict, to speak frankly about the world as it is, rather than about the world Western elites wish we lived in.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Pingback: » Blog Archive »

  • Dennis Colby

    This is a great example of a story in which newspapers and magazines (and attendant Web sites) can really take the lead. TV and radio aren’t going to go into detail: On the radio this morning, the newsreader summed up the whole trip in about 30 seconds.

    I’d love to see papers etc. provide the kind of context and information about B16′s real motives and goals, instead of lazily hitting the “clash of civilizations” story and going home. I mean, how many Americans even know who the Ecumenical Patriarch is? This could be a great opportunity for papers to establish why they’re still essential in the world of “new media.”

  • Larry Rasczak


    The piece you linked to say “The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older.”

    I’d love to see you do something longer on WHY that happened. Where did they all go? Why did people who had lived in The City since Constantine built the place suddenly choose to pack up and leave?

    I think I know the answers, but it is still a piece worth writing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    –Larry, I,too, was hoping to see some background in the Mainstream media on what Christians have endured in Turkey for hundreds of years and how, today, Christians there are treated as 4th class citizens compared to First Class Moslems.
    But, not surprisingly, our local Boston Globe’s front page feature article only mentioned the treatment of religion by saying that both Moslems and Christians are under the thumb of the government. This was inside near the end of the story. And apropos of what Dennis wrote here–why bother with newspapers if they are not going to give us anymore of a story than the local radio station’s 3 minute newsbreak.

  • Lola LB

    I’ve heard that there are crypto-Christians in Turkey, who outwardly are Muslims. Whether that is true or not, is hard to say. But years ago someone outside of Turkey but in a position to know confirmed that this is true.

  • tmatt

    Deacon John and Larry:

    The Weigel piece has some background on what Christians are enduring RIGHT NOW.

    For a very one-sided look at the issue, see:

    And today, see:

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Probably the best recent scholarly and well-researched book on how Turkish Moslems regarded and treated Christians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is: “The Burning Tigris-The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response,” by Peter Balakian who teaches at Colgate University where he is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities.
    It is an in-depth treatment of the official Turkish mass murder of a whole people. It is fully documented with horrendous details.
    It is also well-written.
    A generation after the Armenian Holocaust another butcher of humans was asked if he didn’t fear the world’s reaction to his actions. He responded rhetorically: “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”– The speaker was Adolph Hitler.

  • Robert

    I would expect the vast majority that left in the early 20th century went to Greece after the Greco-Turkish War, which took place right after WWI. If I remember correctly, Istanbul’s Greeks were exempted from the repatriation treaty that forcible exchanged Greeks and Turks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot left Istanbul voluntarily after the war.

  • Bill C.

    The real challenge among the journalists will be to place Turkish history within a historical context and avoid truisms like the “eternal anomosity between Muslims and Christians” et c.

    Unfortunately some of this might involve blaming the victims; the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire were not always an oppressed minority and were certainly not always well-behaved. The process of “nation building” rarely includes toleration of ethnic or religious minorities. And the crisis in Istanbul today is largely the product of recent political intrigues that, while not formally Byzantine, certainly brought down the Turkish anger upon the Christian minority.

    In any event, the problem ultimately with any coverage of the Muslim – Christian and Turkish – Greek affairs is to disentangle the two, and not simply assume that the two are intimately linked at all points. After all, a good practicing Muslim Kurdish nationalist isn’t a very popular figure among Turks either.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The Pope vs. Patriarch–no real conflict or drama, the two sides split somewhat peacefully in the 1200′s. No real “news.”

    Now, the Pope vs. Islamists, THERE’S a conflict to get one’s teeth into what with the blood history.

    My bet is that the Pope vs. Islam angle will get more coverage than the Pope vs. Patriarch.

    By the way, a major basilica in Rome is reserved as the seat of the Eastern Patriarch.

  • Margaret M

    It is obvious from the statements posted here that Americans have a vague understanding that Christians have been persecuted for hundreds of years by Turkey, but the national media is failing to provide that background information so Americans will be exposed to the history of Turkish massacres: ie; the Armenian genocide 1915, Smyrna 1922, Istanbul 1954 – 55, or Cyprus 1964. I know or have known personally people who were present at each of these genocidal attacks on Christians in lands controled by Turkey. There is a pattern of repression, violence, oppression and horror of which the West is ignorant. Does the American media sympathize with the Islamic Turks, or is it afraid of them — and what impact does that have on their reluctance to report the truth?

  • Dennis Colby

    Margaret M wrote:

    “Does the American media sympathize with the Islamic Turks, or is it afraid of them — and what impact does that have on their reluctance to report the truth?”

    I think we can address the press coverage of the pope’s visit to Turkey without resorting to accusations of conspiracy. The question seems to be whether – in light of the Regensburg controversy – the press is going to cover the pope’s meeting with the patriarch and the historical context of that meeting, or whether it’s going to stick to the West vs. Islam angle.

    The events you cite, while still influencing present day policy, are decades in the past, and aren’t going to be reported by anyone as news. Although, now that you mention it, PBS recently did an excellent documentary on the Armenian genocide.

  • albion

    See “What Could He Be Talking About?” at The Continuum.

  • Larry Rasczak

    One little beef…

    If we have to keep hearing about “Occupied Gaza”, “The Occupied West Bank”, “Occupied Palestine”, “The Jewish Occupation of Palestine”, and “The American Occupation of Iraq”…

    Can we at least hear about “Occupied Byzantium” and the “Turkish Occupation of Constantinople”?

    Reciprocity is reciprocity after all.

  • Matt

    Where did they all go? Why did people who had lived in The City since Constantine built the place suddenly choose to pack up and leave?

    Well, some did leave Turkey before WWII, but there was also another round of ethnic cleansing afterwards, particularly involving The City. At that time, the US needed Turkey as an ally against the Evil Empire(tm) and so the US (and US media) did a good job of looking the other way.

    Where did they go? A good many who didn’t depart to another country were forcibly departed to another world. See “Pontic Greek Genocide” in the Wikipedia (right next to “Armenian Genocide”).

  • JJ

    Robert said:
    “If I remember correctly, Istanbul’s Greeks were exempted from the repatriation treaty that forcible exchanged Greeks and Turks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot left Istanbul voluntarily after the war.”

    No they did not leave “voluntarily.” There was the famous tax on non Moslems during World War Two. Essentially nearly all property was seized and enormous taxes assessed on mainly Greeks, but also Jews. Many were forced to labor camps where they died. That is WWII, not WWI.

    Then in the 1950′s there was a pogrom. you can look at wikipedia under “Istanbul Pogrom.”

    Bill C said:
    And the crisis in Istanbul today is largely the product of recent political intrigues that, while not formally Byzantine, certainly brought down the Turkish anger upon the Christian minority.

    No, not a thing has changed since the Pope’s statement. There has been regular violence, threats and deprivation of rights. Moreover, his statement was hardly an “intrigue.” It was a statement about opposition to violence.

    As far as blaming the Greek minority that is strange concept. There was no action by any minority member to trigger the pogrom, Turkish historians even now know that the trigger was a false provocation engineered by the government in Ankara (the Turkish government itself bombed the house Attturk was born in in Greece).

    Since the population exchange the Turkish minority has grown in Greece. The corresponding Greek minority in Turkey has been ethnically cleansed.

    Laslt we ought to be aware that the persecution of the Ecumencial Patriarchate directly affects the religious freedom of Orthodox Ameicans. there are millions under his direct administration — just as their forebearers had been for close to two millenia.

  • Bill C.

    As someone who has lived in among and has strong personal and family ties with the Greek communities in both Cyprus and Istanbul, I can certainly sympathize with anger against the Turks. But I would caution against, again, in an utterly futile gesture, reducing the Greek-Turkish conflict to a Muslim-Christian clash of civilizations as some of our less informed colleagues in the press might want to do.

    While I too mourn the fate of the Greeks in the Phanar and the embattled island of Cyprus, the press has an obligation to resist decontextualizing the events of the 1920s, 1950s, or the 1970s. These events had political contexts (irredentism of Greek nationalists, the mistreatment of Muslims in Cyprus by the Christian majority, US interventionism and the Coldwar, et c.) that while ultimately laced with moral and religious overtones were not fundamentally about a clash of civilization or the inherent barbarism of the Muslim Turk.

    If we believe these things all hope for reconciliation and brotherhood is gone and violence is the only option. By understand the past, and contextualizing violence, we strip it of its enduring power and create a place where free and open communication and reconciliation is possible. The press in the US, in Europe, in Greece and Turkey has a responsibility to facilitate this.

  • MT

    Bill C is absolutely correct. While there is plenty to criticize with regard to Christian minorities, it must be viewed in historical context. And, the Greek treatment of Muslim minorities in Thrace and some of their strident nationalist rhetoric is worthy of criticism as well.

  • Barbara-Marie Drezhlo

    One of the posters stresses the need to put events into context. Indeed! Who is Bartholomew, in any case? In the Orthodox world, he is the head of one of the smallest of the autocephalous Churches.

    Recently, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad said that the meeting between Benedict and Bartholomew was not going to be a conclave between the “heads” of two universal Christian bodies. Furthermore, Vladyki Kirill underscored that the Phanar is not the Orthodox “Vatican”, and it has no power or right to interfere in the workings of any of the other Orthodox Churches.

    This viewpoint was reiterated by Vladyki Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna, who is a normal spokesman for the MP in international affairs. Therefore, this meeting is not what some believe that it is.

    One does feel for the plight of Christians in Turkey. Nevertheless, the EP is not a major force in world Orthodoxy, and has not been for quite some time. At one time, Byzantium was a suffragan see of Antioch, and was only elevated to its present status because it was the capital of a flourishing Christian empire. Such is no longer so. Therefore, there are many (myself included), who believe that the Phanar should revert to its earlier status, and be deprived of autocephaly by a pan-Orthodox Sobor.

    Benedict wishes to see actualised the Catholic-Orthodox alliance proposed by Vladyki Hilarion. In order to do so, he shall have to put the EP into its place firmly and unequivocally. Whether one likes it or no, the de facto “first amongst equals” is Moscow. 75% of the total of Orthodoxy’s adherents are under its omophor.

    Rome is aware of this, and it is polishing up its relations with the MP as a result. The Phanar is irrelevant, the papacy knows this, and it shall act accordingly. Benedict’s visit shall result in no spectacular breakthroughs or developments in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Indeed, he may very well tell Bartholomew to cool his jets, so as not to endanger the Vatican’s growing closeness and cooperation with the MP regarding the combatting of secularisation and the proppogation of traditional mores and standards.

    If he does not cooperate, it is going to be “Bartholomaios delenda est”.

  • Pingback: CaNN :: We started it.

  • Pingback: The Boars Head Tavern » Blog Archive » About the cross…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Second day of pope’s visit coverage and second day the Boston Globe’s woman on the scene writes that Christians are treated no differently than Moslems in Turkey. Do these reporters ever read in depth history or current events books on areas they are being sent to?? How long would it take a reporter to read a few books before hitting the trail? Shouldn’t that be a requirement when given an assignment such as the pope’s visit to Turkey. There were other totally stupid statements in her story and the Catholic Church (or at least her choice of words)– the Catholic Church is not “founded on reason” as she claimed but respects reason as a human intellectual gift and as a way of understanding—Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church.

  • A Doppelganger

    Barbara-Marie, surely you do realize that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul is supported in total by the Greek Orthodox (and in many cases Eastern Orthodox) churches of North and South America. It sounds, from your post, that you are under the impression that he simply presides over the 2,000 of his flock in Istanbul. That’s not the case at all.

    Bill C. has it right. Whatever side of this issue one tends to emphasize (i.e. the history of Greek-Turkish relations, the history of Islamic-Christian relations), ultimately you have to acknowledge that Turkey is nominally a secular country. This does not mean it suppresses its religions equally, as the Boston Globe would have it. Nor does it mean that it suppresses the Christians as a favor to its Muslims, although this is indeed the right-wing story that’s being spun in the US. Instead, the state looks upon the Patriarchate in particular as a foreign agent with a foothold in a historic city. It looks at them as irredentists.

    Why are there hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Turks in Thrace? Why are there only 2,000 Greeks left in Cyprus?

    The population exchanges (ahem, ethnic cleansings) of the 1920s were supposed to leave a significant amoung (6 figures) of ethnic minorities in Turkey and in Greece. It does seem that only one side kept its part of the bargain, even though both sides did participate in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing, an internationally sanctioned cleansing at that. Other descriptions, however, are needed to account for the disappearance of the Pontic community, the Assyrians, the European community at Smyrna, the whole Ionian Coast, not to mention the Istanbul Pogrom and the Cyprus invasion. These are politically motivated atrocities, and though they contain a residual element of religious hatred, they are best seen in that context. For this reason, Turkey has been excused for her behavior in the past as an ally of the West.

    As for the victims in Cyprus, accepting that Muslims were similarly maltreated there in intercommunal violence, none of that violence rose to the level of the 1974 invasion, with thousands killed, and hundreds of thousands cleansed. And even then, there was a one month respite in the military expedition while the two sides were at the bargaining table. Effectively, the Turkish minority’s safety had been secured (if indeed that was the true goal of the Turkish army) and yet despite that, despite Kissinger’s entreaties, the UKs entreaties, the Turkish Army went ahead and took more lanbnd, killed more, etc.

    How then is there any reciprocal or contextualizing information which could address the reasons behind this invasion?

  • A Doppelganger

    2000 Greeks left in Istanbul, obviously