Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey will be in Washington, D.C. tomorrow to meet with President Obama, the main topic being the future of Syria, Turkey's embattled neighbor. In that connection, the President should ask him again about the continuing failure of the Turkish government to allow freedom of worship for Christians in Turkey itself. In particular, the Turks should be asked to allow the ">reopening of the Eastern Orthodox Halki Seminary.
This topic is not a strange one to raise in connection with Syria. In Syria today Christians are being targeted by the rebels that we and the Turks support. Many Christians in Syria long supported the Assad regime as a bulwark against extremist Muslim persecution. They knew the Baathist dictatorship of Assad, but they also knew that his replacements could be genocidal Islamists. Christian fears of this alternative have been partially realized in many instances--as in Iraq during the civil war there. Thousands of Syrian Christians have been forced to flee for their lives, as have, of course, many other Syrians. The Islamists in the rebel ranks (who may be the dominant group now) are quite eager in some cases to kill them. Certainly the ability of Christians to worship freely is deficient and soon may disappear altogether.
Christians were in Syria for two thousand years, long before the Muslims. The same obviously is true of Turkey. Oddly, Christianity survived in the region in part because the Ottomans provided protection for religious minorities. However, discrimination against Christians in Turkey has been a long neglected issue in the West. Turks furiously resist re-arguing the large scale deaths of Armenian Christians almost a hundred years ago (a "genocide" in most Western accounts), and perhaps that issue indeed should be set aside. Even now, Christians are seen not just as a religious group but as a potentially hostile ethnic influence, and thus doubly resented. But that is not an adequate explanation, let alone an excuse, for discrimination today in the 21st Century.
In many ways, Turkey has advanced materially under its present government. One of the arguments for the Erdogan regime is that its express Muslim character is more forward-looking than its secular predecessors and more supportive of free enterprise. Peace with the Kurdish (also Sunni) minority has progressed admirably under Erdogan. Turkish cities are growing in cultural as well as economic terms. Turks generally are liked and respected in the world.
Meanwhile, Erdogan supporters in Turkey want the West to cut the government some slack on the issue of headscarves for women in such public places as universities and government offices. Headscarves were banned in secularist days and some commentators believe that their acceptance leads inevitably to intense social pressure on all women to wear them, a return to veiling like that enforced in Iran. What is permitted today will be required tomorrow. And that leads to increasing intolerance of social differences--raising a whole range of issues of civil rights for women and freedom of religion for minority Christians.
Maybe that concern is unduly pessimistic. If so, one way to dispel it is to exhibit proactive official toleration of Christians in Turkey. As is, they not only cannot open new churches (and couldn't under the secularists, either), let alone proslytize, but they also cannot even operate seminaries to prepare their clergy.
America has been too slow in confronting Assad. However, before we go further in Syria actions it would be nice to have some understandings with Turkey and other neighbors of Syria about what that country will be like for all minorities once the fighting is over. And it would be nice for Turkey to show some leadership and set a more positive example on the topic of religious freedom in the region.