When powerful states and their proxies intensify religious persecution worldwide and democratic governments under a neo-isolationist spell look the other way, where can vulnerable religious minorities find hope? The developments in Turkey show that even when an authoritarian regime doubles down on its scapegoating of religious minorities with all its might, local governments and their visionary leaders can mitigate those challenges and provide vulnerable communities with much-needed hope to carry on.
The year 2021 has been a dark one for freedom of religion or belief in Turkey, particularly for the country’s dwindling religious minorities. In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) singled Turkey out in its annual religious freedom report as the only country among NATO’s 30 members as deserving a “Special Watch List” designation for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom. Earlier this month, USCIRF released a country update on Turkey, warning that the Turkish government “has continued to carry out actions, deliberate inactions, and rhetoric to fuel a political environment that is hostile to religious minorities.”
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque last year, he relegated Turkey’s Christians and Jews from citizens to conquered subjects by deploying supremacist rhetoric that praised the conversion as a gratification of the spirit of conquest of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. Elpidophoros, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and a native of Istanbul, warned that “a mentality of the conqueror, and claiming conqueror’s rights… changes the relationship of the state to its citizens.” He added, “I am a Turkish citizen myself, and I don’t want the state to have the mindset of the conqueror, because I am not a conquered minority. I want to feel in my own country as an equal citizen.”
To make matters worse, the Erdogan government has embraced a crueler strategy to stymie freedom of religion or belief. Although Turkey’s religious minorities have endured decades of systematic discrimination long before Erdogan’s rule, they now also feel regime pressure to serve as props in Ankara’s spectacles of tolerance, ceremonies aimed to rebut accusations of government-sponsored abuse. As captive communities, they face demands to partake in whitewashing attempts and become active agents in their own subjugation.
For example, when Erdogan elicited worldwide criticism for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque last year, the Turkish government rushed to finish the restoration project at the Sumela Monastery in northeast Turkey to hold mass after a four-year hiatus, a development publicized by Turkey’s semi-official news agency Anadolu. Although the Turkish government expected Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, to lead the ceremony only a month after Hagia Sophia’s conversion and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he turned the offer down, citing health concerns.
While religious minorities go back and forth between being scapegoats and props, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has demonstrated that municipalities can play a key role in making their religious minority residents feel welcome as equal citizens and valued stakeholders. A member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, Imamoglu hinted at his inclusive policies when he named all of Istanbul’s ethnic and religious minorities one by one in his June 2019 victory speech, in stark contrast to the Erdogan government’s smear campaign that attacked Imamoglu as a crypto Greek and his supporters as Greeks “disguised as Muslims.”
A deputy chair of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party went as far as stating that there are “many questions marks” surrounding Imamoglu’s ethno-religious identity, demanding that Imamoglu prove that his “spirit, heart and mind is with the Turkish nation.” In response, Imamoglu told The Times, “If I were of Greek origin, I wouldn’t mind to say so. Same if I were of Armenian or Assyrian origin. Or any other national origin. It doesn’t make a difference.” He added, “I find it shameful if politics is realised in terms of ethnicity or beliefs. I also condemn people who think they are degrading someone by calling them Greek.”
Once in office, Imamoglu put his pluralist and inclusive vision into action. Six months into his term, Imamoglu announced the employment of 50 religious officials from different faiths to deliver funeral services in Istanbul. “From now on,” he said, “followers of all faiths and religions living in this age-old city will receive equal services.”
Imamoglu also demonstrated his pluralist vision by embracing Istanbul’s at-risk religious minority heritage. In June, the Istanbul municipality announced its work toward restoring the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, Europe’s largest wooden building, which the Turkish state had shuttered, seized, and left to rot for over 50 years. The municipality’s reference to the site as “the heritage of our common memory” was a rare official embrace of Turkey’s non-Muslim past as a national heritage.
Municipal officials also presented a digital survey of the derelict building to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, an important gesture toward making amends. Imamoglu also announced plans to restore the Sophronius Palace of the Patriarch of Alexandria (Taş Mektep), another one of Istanbul’s Orthodox Christian heritage sites at risk of destruction. The Istanbul municipality’s use of such inclusive language and gestures shows how local governments can build pluralism from the ground up.
Mayor Imamoglu has also made it a habit to reach out to Istanbul’s Christians and Jews during their religious holidays. During the Orthodox Easter, he provided Pascha Tsoureki—a sweet bread whose three-strand braid represents the Holy Trinity—to Istanbul’s Orthodox residents alongside a personally signed message celebrating their Easter. During Passover, he tweeted, “I wish a happy #Passover to the Jewish community of #Istanbul. May it bring hope and morale for the better days to come. Hag Pesach Sameach!” At a time when the Erdogan government’s antisemitic hate speech has led to a spike in hate crimes, Imamoglu’s Passover tweet in Turkish received over 100,000 likes.
It is true that in a hyper-centralized regime like Turkey, the government can reverse overnight Imamoglu’s tireless efforts to promote pluralism. The Istanbul mayor is not only under Ankara’s immense political and financial pressure, but also harassed by spurious investigations and lawsuits. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of Imamoglu’s work in providing Istanbul’s Christians and Jews with the feeling that this city is where their communities and their faiths belong. Such a warm embrace can provide the hope that these vulnerable communities need to survive as their members continue their exodus from a country ruled by an increasingly oppressive government. The case of bottom-up hope from Istanbul should be a reminder that hope can flourish even against great odds, and all it takes is a person with moral courage and integrity.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He is a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities and a steering committee member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Anthropology Department. She is the coordinator of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities and the co-chair of the Middle East Working Group of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. Follow her on Twitter @TurkishFacade. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.