Ghost in the Hrant Dink anniversary

Constantinople5 01I was going through some email from last week and found a note from a reader about coverage of the one-year anniversary of the death of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was killed after he challenged Turkey’s official teachings on the early 20th-century mass killings — or genocide — of Armenians.

Do you want to read a story that strives to ignore the religion angle of an international event? Check out the crucial part of the Associated Press report, as it appeared in the Boston Globe:

Hrant Dink, who was the editor of the minority Agos newspaper, was shot outside his office allegedly by a hardline nationalist teenager. His killing led to international condemnation and debate within Turkey about free speech. A murder trial … is taking place behind closed doors because the alleged gunman is a minor. A total of 19 suspects are on trial. …

Hrant Dink had sought to encourage reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, but several years before his death he was prosecuted under Turkish law for describing the early 20th-century mass killings of Armenians as genocide.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying that the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Turkey’s top politicians, including the prime minister, have vowed a thorough investigation into Dink’s killing. An Istanbul court is looking into allegations of official negligence or even collusion, but lawyers for Dink’s family have said the investigation is flawed.

That’s most of the story. Notice anything missing in that?

Now flash back one year to the International Herald Tribune report about the Dink funeral. This passage appears right after the lede:

The Armenian patriarch, Mesrob II, spoke out during Dink’s funeral service against curbs on freedom of expression and urged an expansion of the potentially thawing relations between Armenia and Turkey that have become evident since the slaying.

“It is unacceptable to judge and imprison someone because of his thoughts, let alone to kill him,” Mesrob said during the hourlong service at the Holy Mother of God Armenian Patriarchal Church. “It is mystical that his funeral turned into an occasion where Armenian and Turkish officials gathered together.”

More than 600 people squeezed into the 175-year-old church, and hundreds more followed the service from loudspeakers in the side rooms, while still more waited in the nearby alleys of the diversified neighborhood. Inside, white flowers in the shape of a cross lay on Dink’s coffin, as three close friends stood on each side holding candles tied with black ribbons.

Now, it is true that funerals take place inside churches — as a rule. Of course, Turkey is not your usual place, with its rigid attempts to maintain its unique status as a “secular Muslim” country.

So the status of the Armenian church — or any other church, for that matter — is at the very heart of this story. Dink was a Turkish-Armenian. Both sides of that troubled equation carry religious content.

All of this looms over one of the most important stories today in Western culture, which is the attempt to bring Turkey into the European Union. Turkey is, of course, the historic door between East and West and, today, between Europe and the Islamic world.

This fits into several other stories, such as the recent visit to Istanbul by Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. Also, the current state of Christianity in that region may be impacted by the death — of cancer at the age of 69 — of the dynamic leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos.

So what do you think is the most symbolic issue facing Turkey, in its contacts with Greece at the moment? Here is a key passage near the end of the Times report, with a quote from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

Turkey, predominantly Muslim and less determinedly secular than in the past, will not recognize the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church as a religious leader of global standing. It contends that doing so would encourage separatism among religious minorities in Turkey. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the spiritual leader of the world’s nearly 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians. …

Mr. Erdogan brushed off the issue of Turkey’s recognition of the church’s international standing but hinted that progress was possible toward reopening the last Eastern Orthodox seminary in Turkey, on the island of Heybeliada, which was closed by Turkish courts in 1972.

Phanar2 01Now do the math. Bishops in Turkey — as well as the ecumenical patriarch — must be Turkish citizens. Yet the state closed the last seminary and monastery 35 years ago. How do you have a patriarch in the Phanar (the besieged headquarters of Eastern Orthodoxy in Turkey) if you have few, if any, bishops? How can you have bishops, in Eastern Orthodoxy, if you have no monks? How can you have Turkish priests if you have no seminary?

This issue has been dragging on and on and on, as I discovered during a visit to Istanbul a few years ago.

And what about that second photo with this post? Here is how I described this historic gate, after visiting the Phanar in 2004:

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it 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!”

I think there are religious ghosts — a few of them — in these stories. I hope the Associated Press and other news organizations will note them from time to time, such as follow-up stories on the anniversaries of highly symbolic murders.

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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.

  • Julia

    How can you have bishops, in Eastern Orthodoxy, if you have no monks?

    I thought I understood what was going on in Turkey in regard to the Patriarch and the closed seminary, but I don’t understand why you need monks to have bishops. Do the Orthodox choose their bishops from monks and not from the priesthood?

  • tmatt

    The historical norm is that bishops come from monastic communities. But all Orthodox bishops are men who have chosen to live as celibates.

    At this point, America has few thriving Orthodox monasteries. Thus, most of the new bishops here are celibate priests.

    In Turkey, all the monasteries have been shut down. Now the last seminary and/or monastic community has been boarded up. It’s an “all of the above” situation.

  • Fr. Hovnan

    Great story.

    I saw these same “religious ghosts” in the Christianity Today coverage last year of the Evangelical Christians who were killed in Turkey.

    It was terrible and may Christ bring these deciated souls close to him.

    But the writers of that article (and most writers in the West) seemed to have absolutely no knowledge of the history of Christian persecution in this region.

    Armenian, Greek and other Christians in Turkey have been martyred, stripped of their property and slaughtered for centuries because they are Christians.

    I am glad you are helping us get religion and get history…

  • Julia

    The other thing not mentioned much is why there are so few Greeks in Turkey when it was the center of Orthodoxy and Istanbul was head of the Byzantine Empire for over 1,000 years.

    The Armenians were largely killed off, but the Greeks were run out of the country to current Greece, and Turks in what is now Greece moved back to Turkey. (I was surprised to learn not long ago that Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire until WW I divided up the empire. I thought I was pretty geographically savvy.) Historical Armenia is located in Anatolia which is within the current borders of Turkey so running them off was not as feasible, I guess.

    Again, we are living with the consequences of how the Big Powers decided to divide up the East and Middle East after
    WW I. The Azerbaijznis and other smaller ethinic groups were given a country of their own, but the Kurds and the Armenians were not.

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  • Clare Krishan

    Same ghost haunts the silence around the firing of Major Coughlin reported here: and commented on here:

    … same victims of the “civil war and unrest” we’re seeing in in the sectarian violence in Iraq perhaps?

    .. God forbid our press should have the temerity to question violence in the name of religion – so uncouth of them !

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sometimes I wonder if the reason the secular American media gives such scant coverage to the persecution and killing of Christians in the Moslem world (now and throughout history since the rise of Islam )is because of the endemic hatred of Christianity that infects many quarters of the MSM.
    Even the failed, incompetent attempts of Western Christians (THe Crusades) to protect themselves and help deliver their Eastern Christian brothers from bloody Islamic conquests are always negatively derided as Christian invasions of Moslem territory instead of the truth–they were badly run actions of self-defense and attempts at liberating Eastern Christians using warriors that were themselves just barely civilized.
    Maybe more reporters in the MSM should be forced to take in-depth histories of religion before they are allowed to pretend they know anything about what they are reporting.

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