Islam part of Germany, Christianity part of Turkey – Wulff
(Photo: Presidents Christian Wulff (R) and Abdullah Gül, followed by wives Bettina (R) and Hayrünnisa, during official welcome in Ankara October 19, 2010/Umit Bektas)
When German President Christian Wulff recently declared that Islam “belongs to Germany,” Christian Democratic politicians there howled and Muslims living in Germany and Turkey cheered. Now Wulff, on an official visit to Turkey, has told the Turkish parliament that “Christianity too, undoubtedly, belongs to Turkey.” This time there was applause in Germany, and silence from the Turkish deputies listening to him in Ankara on Tuesday.
In both cases, Wulff’s words could not have come at a better time.
(Photo: President Wulff address the Turkish parliament, with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bagis (L) in the background/Umit Bektas)
Germany is in the grip of an emotional debate about Islam and Muslim integration. When Wulff said in his Oct. 3 German Unity Day address that Islam was now part of German society, given the large number (about 4 million) of Muslims living there, it was demographically obvious and politically risky. Several of his fellow Christian Democrats have challenged his view and insisted Germany had a “Judeo-Christian heritage” that Islam did not share. But Wulff, who was considered something of a lightweight for the ceremonial role when he was elected last July, has taken a clear stand on a political and moral issue — just like Germans want their head of state to do. He is, as the Financial Times Deutschland entitled its editorial on Wednesday, “Finally A President.”
The overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular state of Turkey is slowly reconsidering the tight restrictions it has long imposed on its tiny Christian minority. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made a small and cautious opening to Christians, allowing religious services at a historic Greek Orthodox monastery and Armenian Orthodox church, allowing an art show at a forcibly closed Orthodox seminary and helping the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch’s succession problem with citizenship for foreign prelates.
Despite this, Christians in Turkey — one of the historical cradles of the faith — fear their communities are dying out. One of the names often cited at the current Synod on the Middle East at the Vatican is that of Luigi Padovese, the Italian-born Roman Catholic bishop for Anatolia who was murdered at his home in southern Turkey last June.
(Photo: Orthodox Christians at Sumela Monastery, 15 August 2010/Umit Bektas)
So it was interesting to see that the Christian minority issue came up at the news conference that Wulff and Turkish President Abdullah Gül held after the German leader’s address to parliament. A journalist referred to Wulff’s comment that he was also the president of Muslims living in Germany. Gül responded: “We have non-Muslim citizens, we have Christian and Jewish citizens. I am also their president. There is no discrimination. We respect our citizens’ religion and identity. I don’t believe there is a problem here.”
Further progress in loosening restrictions on Christians in Turkey would provide concrete proof of whether Gül’s answer was sincere or spurious. Wulff’s itinerary on his first official trip abroad includes another opportunity to highlight the issue — an ecumenical Christian service on Thursday in the Saint Paul church in Tarsus that was seized by the state in 1943 and turned into a museum. German religious and political leaders have been especially active supporting a request by the Roman Catholic Church in Turkey to have it returned to its original status as a house of prayer.
Wulff’s call for more religious freedom in Turkey was covered in the Turkish press (see here and here), but another religion-linked story seems to have trumped it on the front pages. The official welcome for Wulff in Ankara was the first time that Gül’s headscarf-wearing wife Hayrünnisa walked down the red carpet behind her husband at such an official ceremony.
(Photo: First Ladies Hayrünnisa Gül and Bettina Wulff, in Ankara October 19, 2010./Umit Bektas)
Hayrünnisa Gül had previously stayed on the sidelines, in deference to Turkey’s official secularism, but the government is quietly allowing headscarves in public places after winning a referendum to amend the Kemalist constitution.
For German speakers, here is our Reuters German service report on the visit and Wulff’s speech in German. The president’s website hasn’t posted this speech in official English translation yet, but the English version of his Oct. 3 speech is there.