Last week, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited with the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs, as well as held meetings with the representatives of other minority groups.
For any country, a visit from a minister with members of religious minorities may be worth reporting, but these visits had implications that go well beyond newsworthiness.
We used to see photographs of American presidents and vice presidents sitting side by side with the Ecumenical Patriarch, but we have never seen a minister visit a Patriarch before. Therefore, a photograph of Davutoğlu sitting in the Greek Patriarchate meant a lot for Turkey. As far as I know, there has never before been a similar meeting during the entire history of the Turkish Republic.
In Turkish political tradition, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s position is no different from that of a local imam who only deals with a small local group of Muslims. And this was explained by a reference to the local authority the patriarchates attach to. It has always been said that the Patriarchate was attached to the “kaymakamlık,” (the district governor) of Eyüp, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is located. From even only this perspective, you can appreciate the meaning of Davutoğlu’s visit. This visit is a clear message showing that the Turkish state has stopped considering the patriarchate as at a “lower status.”
After this meeting, Davutoğlu also held a press conference together with Bartholomew. Davutoğlu’s remarks were interesting:
“The Patriarchate is one of our oldest religious institutions, with a very strong tradition of its own. It is a basic principle of ours that Turkey possess religious freedom and that all of our religious communities have shared cultural lives in an atmosphere of peace. I had been thinking about such a visit for a long time now. Today, I finally had the chance. At the same time, it is both a great honor and pleasure for me to have the opportunity to engage in consultations regarding problems experienced by the Orthodox community in Turkey. It has been a great honor to be together and to simply breathe the air of this historic atmosphere.”
Bartholomew also spoke to the press:
“It is a source of great joy that all of the religious groups and communities are able to live in our country in serenity. There are great changes at hand in our region, and in the countries surrounding us. We have had the chance to touch on subjects that concern our community. In addition to this, we shared our thoughts with one another on the topic of building permanent peace in our region and throughout the world. We are once more indebted to him [Davutoğlu].”
After visiting the Ecumenical Patriarch, Davutoğlu also visited the Armenian Patriarch, with whom he talked to the press for a second time. In this press conference, Davutoğlu explained that he had suggested a member of the Armenian community be appointed one of Turkey’s ambassadors:
“For many centuries, these lands were a center of peace and serenity, and our Armenian citizens could be found in the highest levels of state affairs. I proposed an ambassadorship to [Daron] Acemoğlu. For all of us, he brings great honor. He is one of the world’s top economists. We believe that the coming period of time will be one during which we will be able to transcend all of the pre-conceptions not only in Turkey but throughout the Caucuses, and will thus be able to really build peace. Turkey will have to make the strongest effort possible in order to not experience religious splits and divisions, the likes of which we have seen previously in the Balkans and the Caucuses. The Middle East is in the middle of an extremely critical period of time. And one of the most important factors in this critical period is to be able to bring about and maintain peace between the various religious communities in an atmosphere of reciprocal understanding. This peace must not be limited to just the arena of religion, but must also be reflected onto the political scene as well.”
Davutoğlu is one of the most visionary Turkish foreign ministers. It is obvious that his visits to the religious institutions of minorities were more than a mere expression of good will. Davutoğlu, it seems to me, has come to realize the fact that a Turkey at war with her minorities cannot take a leading role in this part of the world. If Turkey were to present an example to the Muslim world, to Middle Eastern countries, it should also include a good pattern for the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
However, aside from these goodwill gestures and shifts in the political approach to minorities, we still have huge problems in this area, from the “legal personality” question of religious institutions to the reopening of the Theological School of Halki. Davutoğlu’s visit and other developments are good signs showing the shift at the macro political level. However, what will happen in practice will also depend upon the minorities themselves; they should be a part of the solution by actively going after their rights and by developing concrete solutions for their age-old problems. I really wish to see an increasingly proactive attitude on the part of minorities, which will help us to bring substantial reforms in the field of religious freedoms in Turkey.