Prodromou discusses Turkey’s historical, ongoing erasure of Christianity

Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Elizabeth Prodromou, affiliate scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, delivers Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

Turkey is located at the crossroads of many faiths, Elizabeth Prodromou said. Nonetheless, the country’s government is systematically driving out what religious minorities it once harbored, particularly Christians.

“If there’s anything to be learned from Turkey when it comes to the future of democratization and peace in the region,” she said, “I think it’s that violations of religious rights and religious freedom and … what can be defined as policies of religious cleansing against Christianity need to be avoided.”

Prodromou was third to speak on Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture theme, “Turkey: Crossroads of Many Faiths.” Her lecture, titled “Christianity Past and Present: Religious Freedom and the Contemporary Struggle for Survival,” was delivered at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Prodromou is an affiliate scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, where she co-chairs the Southeastern Europe Study Group. She served from 2004 to 2012 as the vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors the state of religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress.

Christianity has had a long, continuous history in Asia Minor, she began, stretching back 2,000 years almost to the time of the religion’s origins. The religion was consolidated in the area when Constantine the Great established Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. And throughout the next 1,100 years, this part of the world was the epicenter of Christianity and eventually of the Eastern Orthodox Church, she said.

“Furthermore, when the great schism split Christendom into the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West … Orthodox Christians were the commercial, cultural, intellectual and religious interlocutors between Christendom and the world of Islam,” Prodromou said.

Christianity’s decline in the region began during the Ottoman Empire, she said. Christians were allowed a fair degree of internal autonomy within the Islamic theocracy, but they were not given legal rights before the state. They were second-class citizens, Prodromou said, effectively a source of taxes and labor for the sultan.

“This was a sectarian system of separate and unequal,” she said.

Christians had to endure heavy taxation and forced labor under the Ottoman Empire, she said. Long periods of calm in Muslim-Christian relations were punctuated by massacres and expulsions. Prodromou said that the empire established the “toolbox” that came to be used far more systematically to oppress Christians.

In the 90 years since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of Christians in the population, she said, to the point that they are now in danger of disappearing from the area. Today, Christians comprise about one-tenth of 1 percent of the Turkish population. Within that segment, the largest group is the Armenian Orthodox Christians, with a population of about 6,000.

“In the Turkish-occupied section of Cyprus — that’s the 37 percent of the island Cyprus that’s been controlled by the Turkish military since it invaded the island in 1974 — where there were once 200,000 Christians there … today there are less than 450 Christians,” Prodromou said.

She believes that to understand the decline of Christianity in Turkey, one must also understand Turkey’s secularism and nationalism. In her opinion, secularism does not mean the full separation of religion from state; instead, it means absolute control by the state over religion, both over Islam and also over the country’s religious minorities.

“This concept of secularism leads to policies that ultimately are designed to erase Christianity,” Prodromou said.

Nationalism permeates the ideology of every party in Turkey, she said. And as a result, Christians, despite their millennia-long history of living in Turkey, are perceived as aliens and a security threat.

“If this is the conceptual apparatus by which the Turkish state has viewed and portrayed Christians, she said, “then it’s a quite logical jump to formulating and implementing policies and practices that are designed to eliminate Christianity.”

Prodromou categorizes the policies that Turkey currently implements among Christians into five types. The first are policies of “economic disenfranchisement,” which exclude Christians from having certain professions and subject them and their communities to onerous taxes. The second group interferes with the internal governance of Christian communities; for example, by giving state officials influence over the selection of religious leaders.

“Interference in internal governance makes it pretty much impossible for the communities to flourish and reproduce themselves in terms of their leadership,” Prodromou said. “In 1972, the [Theological School of Halki] was closed and it remains closed to the present, so there’s nowhere for a Greek Orthodox community to train their clergy.”

The third group of policies that discriminate against Christians Prodromou called “real estate and zoning practices,” which make it extremely difficult for Christian communities to buy and maintain property for religious use. The fourth group of policies ignore or incite acts of violence against Christians, hardly ever bringing perpetrators to justice.

One example was of what she called a pogrom of the Christians in Istanbul, sparked by a bomb being thrown into the house of the late Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. It later turned out that the bomb was planted by the government.

The fifth category of policies Prodromou called “pervasive discrimination.” For example, minorities are often negatively affected by widespread state regulation, influencing everything from education to property to worship.

However, there are hopeful signs of improvement of conditions for Christians. The current government, run by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has performed a number of symbolic gestures for Christians, recognizing its oppressive policies, she said. For example, the Sumela and the Akhtamar monasteries, which are now primarily tourist attractions, have been allowed to perform liturgies once a year. There is also a new process in place by which Christians can try to regain confiscated property.

“What needs to be done is that these kinds of symbolic gestures need to become institutionalized through ongoing, legal and constitutional reform,” Prodromou said. “That means that human rights and religious freedom and rule of law aren’t dependent on the whim of any individual politician.”

The United States is in a position where it can leverage Turkey into having greater reforms, she said, and it should take advantage of this. The U.S. could offer aid and ask for political reforms in exchange, or it could refuse to take part in the proposed free-trade zone with Turkey, unless there is significant improvement regarding the treatment of minorities.

“We understand religious freedom in terms of the First Amendment to be connected to a whole host of other kinds of freedoms — freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to own private property,” Prodromou said. “We should make sure that we prioritize those kinds of issues in our relationships, certainly with countries that we consider strategic allies.”