[OPINION] Turkey’s Erdoğan goes after the pope and the Vatican

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ANKARA, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 28: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Pope Francis (R) walk past a guard of honor during an official welcoming ceremony at Turkey's Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey on November 28, 2014. Volkan Furuncu / Anadolu Agency

By Abdullah Bozkurt

The ongoing tension between Turkey and the Vatican at the political level that has been simmering beneath the surface for some time is largely attributed to the hatred and animosity long harbored by the xenophobic Turkish Islamist pack led by the top Islamist, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, against Christians in general and the Holy See in particular. This is yet another underreported development in Turkey that needs to be studied, analyzed and carefully monitored.

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

From the incessant attacks against the Vatican, often displayed in public remarks delivered by Erdoğan as well as his propaganda machine in the media, one would naturally conclude that this special blend of an Islamist group that effectively seized all the levers of power in Turkey has a strong distaste for the pope and the Vatican. That means the divide runs deeper than the sheer political manifestations of this lingering mistrust that were seen even before controversial remarks on April 12, 2015 by Pope Francis, who described the 1915 mass killings of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century.

The genocide controversy that led to the recall of the Turkish ambassador before he was allowed to return in February 2016 continued when the pope delivered similar remarks during his visit to Armenia in June. Although the Turkish Foreign Ministry claimed the pope’s remarks reflected his personal opinion, not that of the Vatican, this was nothing but a face-saving measure to comfort the opposition in Turkey. The real reason for the change of winds in the Vatican is Erdoğan’s strong diatribe against the Vatican, an open manifestation of his deep-rooted grudge towards Christians in general and his harsh public treatment of the pope during his official visit to Turkey. Clearly Erdoğan has been itching for a confrontation with the pope, and he apparently got one, although not the way he thought would elicit a response but rather the way the Holy See considered best to challenge Erdoğan on its own terms. Perhaps the Vatican’s subtle approach in dealing with crises made an exception in Erdoğan’s case, using the genocide issue as an opportunity to fire a shot across the bow of the Turkish ship.

In a deliberate move, Erdoğan has decided to take on the Vatican because he wanted to position himself as sort of an undeclared caliph, protector of all Muslims in the world against what he considers “modern crusaders.” Perhaps one of the best ways to achieve this, he imagined, was to challenge the pope, who has the respect of some 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. According to the original plan, this would help him score some points among Muslims in Turkey and in other countries, consolidate his power base, fire up core Islamist supporters and eventually turn him into a hero who did not shy away from locking horns with the Vatican. The loyalist partisan bunch in the government followed suit with former EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır accusing Argentina (the pope’s home country) of welcoming the “leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms” in the past.

The leaked email messages of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, who is also the energy minister, reveal how the president and his family members were intimately involved in pope-bashing and how they plotted to bring a smear campaign against the Vatican into the Turkish criminal justice system by means of false complaints. First, Mehmet Barlas, the lead government propagandist at the Sabah daily, controlled by the Erdogan family enterprise, published an op-ed claiming that the Armenians paid the pope $25 billion for his genocide remarks without offering any evidence to back that up. Then, a criminal complaint was filed by a man named Hüseyin Kamil Akarsu, a shopkeeper in the western province of Muğla who alleged that the Vatican harbors secret plans against Turkey and aims to convert the whole of Asia to Christianity.

This absurd complaint, taken seriously by the Erdogan-controlled judiciary and later included in an official indictment by a Turkish prosecutor, also alleged that leading interfaith advocate and prominent Muslim intellectual Fethullah Gülen — a critic of Erdoğan for massive corruption schemes and the president’s blatant abuse of Islam for political gains and personal enrichment – is a secret cardinal at the Vatican. Akarsu cited Gülen’s meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1998, part of the Muslim cleric’s outreach and dialogue efforts among faiths, as evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The leaked emails show the complaint was sent to Egemen Bağış, the disgraced former EU minister who had to resign after a graft probe that revealed he took $1.5 million in cash from an Iranian man named Reza Zarrab in exchange for government favors. Bagış shared the complaint against the Vatican with Berat and his brother Serhat Albayrak, who manages government mouthpiece the Sabah daily. All these preposterous claims were laid out in an orchestrated complaint and later extensively covered by pro-government dailies including Sabah.

It was not just Gülen who was slammed by Erdoğan for meeting with the pope, but his opponent in the 2014 presidential race, former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, who also received his fair share of bashing by Erdoğan, who criticized the head of the largest intergovernmental organization after the UN for meeting with the pope. Deciding to throw his weight behind this negative campaigning against the pope, then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu even accused the Vatican of joining an axis of evil against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which is rooted in a hostile brand of political Islam.

Lies, deceits, half-truths and deliberately misleading statements are often used by the Turkish president in his attacks on the Vatican and Christians. In his usual diatribe against the UN, Erdoğan often says all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are Christian nations (not true, of course) and laments that no Muslim country is represented in the key UN executive body.

In October, speaking to thousands of people in his hometown of Rize in northeastern Turkey, Erdoğan targeted Iraq’s Yazidi (Ezidi) minority, accusing them of cooperating with terrorists and being involved in wrongdoing. He said Turkey had opened its borders to fleeing Yazidis despite the fact that they are Christians (well, they are not Christians, but who cares). The Turkish president’s lead theologian and fatwa (religious edict) giver, Hayrettin Karaman, openly wrote that the Jewish and Christian West has always gotten the world into trouble, while Erdoğan’s chief advisor Yiğit Bulut said that Turkey does not have to get along with the West, which he claims is based on a Greek-Christian synthesis.

It is clear that Erdoğan has unleashed a beast in Turkey that now rears its ugly head every time something bad happens in the country. Instead of accepting responsibility and acting in line with principles of accountability and good governance, Turkish Islamists have always found a scapegoat to shift the blame onto others. The Vatican has unfortunately become a victim of such patterns in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Even after a failed coup on July 15, the Turkish president maintained that foreign countries were behind the attempt, prompting government media to start naming the Vatican among the other usual suspects, which included the US, the EU, and Israel.

Moreover, there seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the Erdoğan regime to associate Christians with terrorism. In an unusual statement from the governor’s office in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin on Aug. 1, 2016, it was claimed that a crucifix was found around the neck of a woman who was killed and was alleged to have had links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. In late August, thugs chased and attacked Asian tourists in Turkey’s southeastern city of Gaziantep, where Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) cells are known to be quite active. In video footage posted on the Internet, thugs were seen shouting at the tourists and calling them “infidels” and “Christian missionaries.” Instead of arresting the posse, police detained the Asian tourists and reportedly had them deported.

Furthermore, the government has dropped the ball on finding the real perpetrators of murders of Christians in Turkey and in fact released the killers in one case despite an abundance of incriminating evidence. Three Christians, including German national Tilmann Ekkehart Geske, who operated the Zirve Publishing House, which prints Bibles and other Christian literature in the southeastern city of Malatya, were brutally murdered in 2007. All the suspects except for one were released pending trial in 2014 when the prosecutors and judges involved in the case were abruptly removed by the government-controlled judicial council.

Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, who served at the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon, was shot to death on Feb. 5, 2006. At the time, 16-year-old suspect Oguzhan Akdin was captured and received an 18-year prison sentence. But the real perpetrators were never found. A high-profile Nusra militant of Russian nationality identified as Magomed Maghomedzakirovich Abdurrahmanov (aka Abu Banat) who decapitated three Christian clerics in Syria on April 22, 2013 will be set free next year by Turkey. Abu Banat, designated by the US State Department on Oct. 29, 2015 as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” and listed on the sanctions list by the UN Security Council Sanction Committee on Oct. 2, 2015, has admitted to having links to the Turkish intelligence agency.

This rampant anti-Vatican and anti-Christian narrative is being fed to millions of people, generously funded by the state resources available to Turkey’s Islamist rulers, from public schools to media outlets, from state-run mosques to mushrooming Islamist associations.

Considering just one government agency called the Diyanet (Religious Affairs Directorate), which controls 150,000 staff members in more than 80,000 mosques across the country, gives some idea of how much damage Erdoğan-led Turkey can inflict on dialogue efforts by disseminating this hateful narrative against Christians through sermons that are being delivered in mosques every Friday. It is time to confront the Erdoğan regime, name and shame it, slap the patronage network he has built in order to survive with targeted sanctions, thwart his regional and global initiatives, and further isolate and insulate him to limit the damage he can inflict on world peace, understanding and respect.

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