ISTANBUL – There aren’t many other cities in the world where the three great Abrahamic faiths are more comfortably at home than Istanbul.
Here, Christians arrived with Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Islam arrived with the Ottoman conquerors in 13th and 14th centuries. Jews arrived in large numbers after being expelled from Spain – and were invited by the Ottoman rulers.
The pogrom greatly accelerated emigration of ethnic Greeks from Turkey, and the Istanbul region in particular. The Greek population of Turkey declined from 119,822 persons in 1927, to about 7,000 in 1978…according to Human Rights Watch, the Greek population in Turkey was estimated at 2,500 in 2006.
Of course, when your empire extends across large swaths of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, tolerance of diversity of all sorts is essential for keeping the peace. Hence the Ottoman embrace of the “millet” system, a formal policy of religious toleration under which non-Muslims were allowed to worship freely in their own small communities.
They were allowed the privileges of the empire and spared one obligation – non-Muslims didn’t serve in the military. Instead, they paid a tax called “jizya.”
I’m in Turkey with a small group invited by the Chicago-based Niagara Foundation, which promotes intercultural dialogue.
The others in the group are Jane Eesley, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Rockford: Kris Kieper, executive director of the YWCA; Kristina Reuber, who heads the Golden Apple Foundation: Buzz Hunter, principal of Prosser Career Academy in Chicago; and Celal Evliyaoglu, who runs the Turkish American Society of Rockford.
You can get a fairly complete picture of the fruits of diversity in one small slice of Istanbul’s Old Town district.
There, in the span of about half a mile, sit Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans administrative center of the empire; Hagia Sophia, one of the first great churches of Christendom, later a mosque, and now a museum; and the Blue Mosque, named for its brightly colored tiles.
We spent time at all three sites on Sunday, mingling with visitors from all over the globe. At dinner, our conversation turned briefly to crisis in Iraq, where militants have declared an Islamic state stretching from Syria to Iran. It’s a painful turn of events for Turkish Muslims raised with an expectation of religious tolerance.
“Nothing that organization does has anything to do with Islam or any religion,” said Hakan Berberoglu, Niagara’s vice president for outreach. “These people are crazy.”
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A more uninformed piece of garbage I have rarely seen. “Islam arrived” – I am sure it was very peaceful in Constantinople when it “arrived.”
And “jizya” – a marvel of tolerance.
Hagia Sophia – now object of a campaign to turn it back into a mosque.
And complete ignorance of the fate of the Christians who used to live in Turkey. CIA World Factbook on religion in Turkey: “Muslim 99.8% (mostly Sunni), other 0.2% (mostly Christians and Jews)”
The article did generate a letter to the editor, worth quoting in full:
After reading Rockford Register Star executive editor Mark Baldwin’s column “Fruits of diversity abound in Turkey,” one would think Turkey must be a nation that welcomes ethnic and religious diversity.
Sadly, that is not the case. Historically, the region that is now Turkey has seen a multitude of religious and ethnic groups. That diversity, however, is the stuff of history and not the present. The Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul numbered more than 100,000 in the mid-20th century, but is now less than 3,000, largely due to nationalistic violence targeting Christians.
Turkey forced the closure of Istanbul’s Orthodox seminary in 1971. As a result, the church can no longer train priests. Turkish law requires that the patriarch be a Turkish citizen, but without the ability to train Turkish priests, the current patriarch may be the last one.
There are other statutory limits on the freedom of Christians in Turkey. Churches may not erect a steeple. The display of crucifixes is severely restricted. Christian-owned property has been confiscated. Does this sound like a welcoming, diverse society?
As a reporter, isn’t it Baldwin’s duty to be more than a spokesman for the Turkish government and report on Turkish reality?
— Steve Vaughan, Rockford