By UWE SIEMON-NETTO
The diplomatic, political and religious tug of war over Turkey’s attempt to join the European Union has taken a new, mysterious twist.
The Turkish newspaper Milliyet reported that 35,000 Muslims converted to Christianity last year; most are said to have joined evangelical congregations.
If true, this would amount to a mass movement, considering that no more than 0.2 percent of Turkey’s 68 million citizens are thought to belong to any of the Christian denominations — Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant — or to Jewish congregations. All other Turks are Muslims, primarily Sunni.
While there is a consensus among religious observers in Turkey that the number of Christians is rising slowly but steadily, they consider Milliyet’s figure grossly exaggerated.
“This is the first time I have heard about this,” the Rev. Holger Nollmann told United Press International Friday. Nollmann, pastor of the German-speaking Protestant congregation in Istanbul, went on to say there are “probably no more than 2,000 evangelicals in all of Turkey.”
The Rev. Hans Voecking, the Brussels-based Islam specialist of the European Catholic Bishops’ Conferences, agreed.
“We have no knowledge of any mass conversions in Turkey,” he said.
Ihsan Ozbek, president of the Council of Independent Protestant congregations in Turkey, also counseled caution.
He told Idea, a German Protestant news service, more Turks were indeed turning to Christianity, but he added that precise figures were difficult to ascertain.
“Given the Islamic environment in which we live, most Turks coming to our congregations do not wish to make waves,” he said.
Nollmann surmised Islamist circles might have planted the Milliyet article as a “harassment fire” against Turkey’s push for membership to the European Union.
“This smacks like a warning: ‘Look, this is what happens if Turkey joins Europe,'” he said.
But there seems to be more to this story. As Idea reported, most converts seem to be descendants of Orthodox Christians who ostensibly became Muslims to avoid being killed in Turkey’s 1914-1922 genocide of its Armenian minority. It seems many Greek Orthodox and other Christians followed their example.
Because of the genocide, the conversions and the exodus of many Christians from Turkey to Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus, Iraq and the West, the share of Christians among Turkey’s citizens shrank from 20 percent to 0.2 percent. If it’s true the erstwhile converts’
offspring are now reconverting, this could be viewed as a sign of confidence in the Turkish government’s promises of religious tolerance as it pursues EU membership.
Before German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer flew to Turkey on an official visit Thursday, the Frankfurt-based International Society for Human Rights, or IGFM, urged him to insist on equality for Christians in Turkey. The organization listed some examples of
— Protestant congregations are still under threat of being shut down, as happened last summer in Mersin.
— Since 1997, monasteries in southeastern Turkey have been forbidden to teach Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
— Christian congregations in Turkey have no legal status.
This also applies to clergy. While, for example, nearly 600 imams minister to the huge Turkish minority in Germany, Christian ministers such as the Nollmann are not recognized in Turkey. Nollmann’s official status is that of a member of the German consulate-general.
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Germany last September, he promised to help improve minority rights in his country.
“It looks as if my chances of being recognized as a pastor around here are finally improving,” Nollmann told United Press International Friday.
Perhaps this, then, is the real message of the Milliyet article about conversations to Christianity, even it the figure of 35,000 seems vastly overstated. Maybe, just maybe, Turkey’s closet Christians interpret their country’s push for EU membership as a signal to return to their ancestors’ faith safely.