Interview with Msgr. Louis Pelâtre, Vicar Apostolic of IstanbulHow is the life of the Catholic community in Turkey proceeding?
I came here over forty years ago and I have been bishop for twenty years. The situation has greatly changed, evolving quite positively it seems to me, even if this does not mean of course that things are going in the direction in which we would like them to go. We have to be patient but there are some positive signs. For example, some days ago we were invited as Catholic bishops to participate in the consultations for the new constitution. Personally I do not have any particular hopes with regard to this, but the gesture in itself was highly significant: this invitation meant that they consider the fact that we exist, which is what we have been asking for some time now. At first they had invited the Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs, while we Catholics had been ignored. Then the ambassador of Turkey to the Holy See pointed out this anomaly and asked for us to be consulted too. And that is how it was: we were received with great kindness and were able to explain our situation. Here in Turkey the problem lies above all in the question of the ownership of the churches, and not so much in the relations with the local population which are good. Our difficulties are mainly of a juridical nature: what we have been claiming for decades is the recognition of the legal status of the Catholic Church in Turkey, as we do not juridically exist here. Undoubtedly we must admit that the situation is similar in many other countries too. With respect to our repeated requests, they answered that what can be done and changed will be evaluated, but that it is a problem that cannot be resolved at the level of rewriting the constitution.
We shall wait and see how the question evolves, but we certainly cannot deny that this invitation was very positive. I am French and I notice many similarities between the Turkish constitution and that of France, which does not recognise the legal personality of the Catholic Church either and for this reason it is organised in the form of an association. This allows it to carry out various legal proceedings, like purchasing, selling, renting … These are not the privileges that the Catholics in Turkey are asking for, I would like to firmly stress, but rights equal to those of the other citizens.
The change that has taken place and is in a certain sense taking place also to the advantage of the Christians, has paradoxically been triggered off by a party with evident Islamic reference. What is your opinion about this?
To a certain extent this is true, but the AKP, “of justice and development”, Erdoğan’s party, is not an ‘Islamist’ party. The media use this expression in order to simplify matters. Erdoğan and his party won by appealing to the people’s convictions and their Muslim identity. However this phenomenon can be better understood by considering for example what happened in France after World War I. We Catholics underwent great pressure and had to live as if we did not exist. The same thing happened to the Muslims in Turkey to a certain extent. Erdoğan bet on them, the Muslim Turks who are proud to be so, and used their attachment to traditions and won the elections. Does that mean that he is Islamist? No, it means taking cognisance of the fact that the believers too have had the right to express and show themselves in his favour…
What do you think about Erdogan’s party?
I can say that the AKP party is not homogenous as within it there are the right and left wings and the centre. The political leaders have to take the different currents into account everywhere. In Turkey’s case it must be said that Erdoğan is a clever politician who knows how to keep the various souls together.
Have you ever met him personally?
I only met him on a number of occasions when he was mayor of Istanbul. Our relations have always been cordial. In my opinion, if he has won the elections it is because he demonstrated that he was better than the others: he knows how to speak to the people directly and simply. Vast shades of meaning and difficult speeches are not what is needed to win the elections. Democracy is this: the population chooses the people that it wants to be governed by. The point is that they could do with a well-organised opposition, but unfortunately it does not exist. Turkey does not escape the universal laws of the democratic game.
Do you think that Turkey is completely democratic?
While the democracy is not that solid, it must however be said that over the last years regular elections have taken place. The population votes and yes, one can say that Turkey is a democratic country.
During your forty years spent in Turkey have you noticed an increase in religious fanaticism?
Today, with this government making state secularity and the laws modelled on it less rigid, one can see a certain change with respect to forty years ago when I came here: there is a more explicit showing of religious symbols, for example the number of veiled women has grown with respect to the past….
Do you think that this is harmful for Turkish society?
Not for the time being. It is not dangerous if women wear a veil, but whether they are forced to do so by ideologies imported from abroad or even paid to do so. The true issue is freedom.
Are there really cases of women paid to wear a veil and to make propaganda therefore?
Some people say that even this is going on. But I am convinced that this level of fanaticism is not part of the real Turkey, but comes rather from other Muslim countries.
Are they so influential here?
They try to influence society, but for the time being they have not managed to do so. We must nonetheless be careful and always be ready to defend ourselves.
How do you consider the progress of Turkey’s adhesion process to the European Union?
The Turks were extremely motivated at the beginning, but now they are tired because they do not understand the European attitude and are asking themselves whether their adhesion is wanted or not. Some are asking the question: ‘If they don’t want us, why insist?’. Others think that a state like Turkey has no need to enter the European Union and consider the present situation a true injustice towards them. They do not understand why countries that applied for entry after Turkey like Bulgaria or Romania have already become part of the EU. The Turks are proud and feel humiliated by the behaviour of some states. A certain disinterest can now be detected among the people on this subject, while the government continues its march to obtain recognition. In any case many people believe that even if the formal accession to the Union is never reached, other ways will be found. For example I heard a businessman saying: ‘Turkey is already in fact in Europe, and it does not matter if it is not yet at the level of community institutions. The cultural, commercial and customs agreements that have been stipulated work well’. If Europe does not want to grant access to Turkey, these entrepreneurs claim, it will be Europe that will lose us and not Turkey. Islam is feared in Europe, that is the point’.
Do you think that the situation of the minorities might improve with the accession of Turkey to the EU?
Without any doubt. The Orthodox Patriarch Bartolomeos and the Armenian Patriarch have declared to be openly in favour of the accession of Turkey to Europe. And together with them we hope that the adhesion might foster the solution to our problems.
What does the fact that the Catholic Church is not legally recognised in Turkey mean for the actual daily life of the faithful?
In the ordinary life of the single faithful this does involve particular problems, while it makes the life of the Church difficult insofar as an institution. A simple example: I am the Vicar Apostolic here, Bishop of this diocese, but I cannot open up a bank account in the name of the diocese, as the diocese ‘does not exist’ legally. I am forced to open a personal account and this is rather inconvenient. The property situation is just as unclear: all our churches existed before the Republic, after which the situation got radically more complex. I am not even sure that a possible future legal recognition could resolve this situation in one go. All the aspects regarding ownership need to be clarified and regulated.
But if this recognition of the legal statute cannot be included in the constitution, what do they propose by way of solution?
They propose to pass a law. But in my opinion it will be very difficult for this to happen. How can one imagine the parliament of a state as big as Turkey debating a bill concerning a minority which is very little known to the people outside Istanbul? I think that as Catholics we should pursue another way, based on the French example: in France the Catholic Church, which is not recognised as legal person, has established itself in diocesan associations having a legal status.
What is the situation like with regard to religious freedom?
We have freedom of worship, but religious freedom is more than this. Here we do not have the right, for example, to set up a youth association as it would have no legal value. In fact they force us to shut ourselves off in an enclosure and basically, in my opinion, they fear proselytism. The Turks do not want a Turkish Catholic Church.
Are there any converts? And do they have problems with their families?
Yes, the few converts have problems with their families of origin that do not accept their conversion.