There is little left from the days when the town of Tarsus was not Turkish but part of the Roman Empire: a handful of columns, a few old walls -- and a house where, about 2,000 years ago, a man who would become a central figure in Christianity was born.
"I am a Jew from Tarsus," the Bible reads. The man who was quoted as saying these words went down in history as the Apostle Paul, who brought the Christian faith into the world.
Every year, thousands of visitors travel to Tarsus, which is near the Turkish-Syrian border. But Christians who wish to worship in the Church of St. Paul, built several centuries ago, must overcome bizarre hurdles to do so. A permit is required from the local authorities to celebrate mass in the church. In addition, worshippers are charged an entry fee and required to bring along the essentials -- from the altar crucifix to candles -- and then promptly remove them after the service. The church was used as a military depot for several decades, before the Turkish government suddenly declared it a museum in the 1990s.
Rome has never come to terms with the fact that Christians have such a difficult time of it in the birthplace of the apostle. But this year, which Pope Benedict XVI has declared the "Year of St. Paul," it will become a topic of public debate. In June, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will celebrate a mass in Tarsus. A number of German bishops also plan to travel to Turkey.
The Catholics are pursuing a politically explosive plan. Roughly 2,000 years after the birth of St. Paul, they want to get a Christian meeting center constructed in Tarsus.
They have chosen an auspicious moment for the scheme. With Turkey vying for European Union membership, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can hardly afford to turn down a Christian project. In addition, the Church, especially the German bishops, is offering something in return. The Germans have often taken a benevolent stance toward the construction of mosques in Germany, a policy they intend to continue. In return, they are demanding tolerance for Christians in Turkey.
The archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who is well known for his conservative views, campaigned for the initiative among his fellow cardinals. Meisner is closely aligned with Bishop Luigi Padovese, the pope's apostolic vicar in Anatolia. The two men have coordinated their efforts with Rome and found supporters who are now coming to their aid.
For Hans-Jochen Jaschke, the auxiliary bishop in Hamburg, the proposed structure in Tarsus would be "an extremely important symbol." Of course Jaschke, who is in charge of inter-religious dialogue within the German Bishops' Conference, is not in favor of a simple church-for-mosque trade. But then he slyly adds: "It would be very helpful towards the acceptance of Turks in Germany if a sign of acceptance of Christians were to be seen in Turkey."
Given the current circumstances of Christians in Turkey, however, Jaschke's wish taps into one of the most major issues in German-Turkish relations. Without government approval, no religious community can be active in Turkey. Muslim clerics must also submit their sermons to the authorities. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, introduced this rule in an effort to keep Islam under control. The strict system is intended to guarantee the state's freedom from religious influences, but it also drastically restricts Christians' freedom to practice their faith.
Because of these obstacles, Cardinal Meisner took the Catholic Church's request for approval of its planned Christian meeting center to the very top of the Turkish state, and wrote to the Turkish prime minister in February. Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already been approached once before, when he visited Cologne, Istanbul's sister city, during a state visit to Germany on Feb. 10. Cologne Mayor Fritz Schramma, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), mentioned the situation at the birthplace of St. Paul to Erdogan and conveyed the cardinal's request to him. Erdogan promised his support. "As soon as the church approaches me with this wish, I will speak out in favor of it -- even against my opposition."
Bishop Padovese, who had already submitted the same request to the government in writing months earlier, repeated the request. Together with six other bishops in Turkey, he plans to take Erdogan, who recently solicited German Chancellor Angela Merkel's support for his country's EU membership, at his word. The bishops joined forces to ask Erdogan to support their project. It is now up to the government to make Tarsus into a turning point in the Turkish state's policy toward Christians.
For the German bishops, the matter has become a touchstone in the Church's relationship with Islam. A group of German leaders plans to travel to Tarsus in September. Cardinal Meisner already went to Tarsus more than half a year ago and held a church service there.
Meisner was horrified by the conditions under which Christians must live in the aspiring EU member. In 1920, 20 percent of the Turkish population was Christian. That figure has declined to only 0.1 percent today, and the state and local authorities make life difficult for this small contingent. The largest group consists of roughly 60,000 Armenians in Istanbul, who are barred access to higher government positions simply because the word "Christian" is stamped in their identification cards.
Fears of a Christian 'Mission'
Turkey's 33,000 Catholics are a negligibly small group compared with the country's roughly 73 million Muslims. The headquarters of the German Bishops' Conference regularly receives horrifying reports of how they are treated. This has helped shape the Catholic Church's current position that Turkey is not yet "ready to be part of Europe."
Many Catholics meet only in private homes, because they feel persecuted and discriminated against. Even in the cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, Christians cannot openly practice their faith everywhere. One prayer room was set up in a former industrial building -- naturally without visible identifiers like a cross or a church tower. The training of clergy and lay ministers is impossible; monasteries and seminaries were closed years ago. Even foreign personnel are generally not allowed to make up for staffing shortfalls.
Admittedly, the German Protestant pastor who attends to the spiritual needs of tourists from Germany and the more than 10,000 German pensioners who have settled on Turkey's southern coast is not persecuted. However, he is merely tolerated, because he is a diplomatic member of the consulate general.
One of the fundamental problems Christians face in the country is their completely tentative status. Unlike Germany, Turkey does not recognize churches and parishes as legal entities. Ownership rights to old churches and other buildings are routinely challenged in Turkey.
"Hundreds of churches and parish halls were seized, thereby depriving Christians of their ability to congregate," complains Otmar Oehring, head of the human rights office of the international Catholic mission society Missio. Only a few months ago, Turkey's supreme appellate court deprived the ecumenical patriarch of his title, to which he has been entitled for centuries.
The difficult situation of religious minorities is always brought to the attention of the international community when violent crimes occur. In February 2006, a Catholic priest was murdered in Trabzon, followed by the killing of a Christian journalist in Istanbul in January 2007 and of three employees of a Christian publishing company in Malatya in April. A monk was kidnapped in Midyat in November 2007, a priest was wounded in a knife attack in Izmir in December 2007, and a pastor in Antalya barely escaped being murdered when, in January of this year, Turkish intelligence uncovered a plot to kill him.
There is no evidence that anti-Christian propaganda led to these acts of violence, but the mood in Turkish society is being systematically poisoned against the minority religion. Although the number of Christians in the country is a tiny fraction of what it once was, Islamist and nationalist forces stoke completely exaggerated fears of a "Christian mission."
The Turkish intelligence service and the military, as well as police intelligence units, spread horrific stories about Christians in Turkey. For example, the armed forces published a report titled "Missionary Activities in Our Country and in the World," in which they warn against the "dangers posed by converts." Governors, heads of intelligence and education directors in the provinces have been called upon to take joint action against "proselytizing Christians."
Ironically, the Turkish Interior Ministry has registered a ridiculously small number of converts from Islam to Christianity: a mere 344 in the last seven years. For this reason, Turkish papers like the liberal daily Sabah are critical of the efforts to incite hysteria. "A lie is being spread about missionaries," the paper wrote in an editorial. "The public is being goaded to adopt hate-filled, anti-Christian positions. All of this is experienced in this country, and sometime, when the time comes, someone will believe the fairy tale that 'these are the enemies among us,' and kill three people."
Liberal voices like Sabah's allow Padovese to be cautiously optimistic. He was especially pleased to read an editorial by the editor-in-chief of the leading secular daily Hürriyet, Ertugrul Özkök, who wrote: "Turks in Germany have built more than 3,000 mosques, and we cannot even tolerate a few churches and a dozen missionaries. Where is our civilization?"
Last week, Padovese detected the first signs of a possible easing of tensions: The local authorities in Tarsus assembled a commission to discuss the request for a Christian center in the birthplace of St. Paul. In other words, the Turks had put together a working group, a notion that elicits a smile from the bishop. "The Turks and the Germans are similar in that respect at least," he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan