FaithWorld

Turkey’s military shun reception with hijab-wearing first lady

gul 1 (Photo: President Abdullah Gül and his wife Hayrünnisa Gul at the Republic Day reception in the Presidential Palace  Cankaya in Ankara, October 29, 2010/Umit Bektas)

Turkey’s staunchly secularist military shunned the president’s Republic Day reception on Friday evening, attended for the first time by his headscarf-wearing wife, in a snub to the country’s pious rulers.

In the past President Abdullah Gül had given two separate parties, pandering to secularist sensitivities by conducting the higher-profile evening affair without his spouse, but this year he held just one event, which she co-hosted.

The military held a separate party, Turkish media reported, demonstrating the lingering divide between the secularist old guard and the rising class of conservative Muslims, epitomised by Gül and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

“The military should have come here. The place for a reception tonight is the presidential palace,” broadcaster CNN Turk quoted Erdogan, who added he opposed the idea of a reception elsewhere.

ataturk (Photo: Turkish military officers attend a Republic Day ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of secular Turkey, in Ankara October 29, 2010/Umit Bektas)

Republic Day commemorates the founding of a secularist, modern Turkey on the ruins the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. It is traditionally a day in which the presence of Ataturk, Turkey’s revered first President, looms large.

Islam part of Germany, Christianity part of Turkey – Wulff

wulff 1 (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.

wulff 3In 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.

In quiet revolution, Turkey eases headscarf ban

turkey headscarfFreshman Busra Gungor won’t have to wear a wig to cover her Islamic headscarf, as many pious relatives and friends did to avoid getting kicked off campus.

In a landmark decision, Turkey’s Higher Education Board earlier this month ordered Istanbul University, one of the country’s biggest, to stop teachers from expelling from classrooms female students who do not comply with a ban on the headscarf. (Photo: Women demonstration for headscarves at the  Constitutional Court in Ankara on October 23, 2008/Umit Bektas)

It was the latest twist in a long political and legal tussle in Turkey between those who see the garment as a symbol of their Muslim faith and those who view it as a challenge to the country’s secular constitution.

Turkey needs to re-interpret secularism – senior MP

erdogan (Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan watches his wife Emine voting in a constitutional referendum, in Istanbul September 12, 2010/Osman Orsal)

Turkey has to re-interpret its principles of secularism to adapt to a changing society, an AK Party member in charge of drafting a new constitution said, joining a growing debate over the Muslim country’s identity.

Turkey, a rising regional power which aspires to join the European Union, was founded by Kemal Ataturk as a secular republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. But a power shift led by a new middle class of observant Muslims which forms the backbone of the AKP government is challenging Turkey’s ability to reconcile Islam and secularism.

In the lastest twist of a long-running dispute, Turkey’s Higher Education Board last week ordered Istanbul University, one of Turkey’s biggest, to stop teachers from expelling female students who wear the Muslim headscarf from classes.

Turkey’s dwindling Christians fear end is approaching

turkey christian (Photo: Andreas Zografos at St Nicholas Church in Heybeliada island near Istanbul October 10, 2010/Osman Orsal)

Andreas Zografos left Turkey in 1974 amid economic and political turmoil to find work in Europe, but he always knew he would return home. “The ties of this land are strong. I was drawn back by the blue of the sea, the colour of the sky,” he says.

A Greek Orthodox Christian, Zografos, 63, and his wife today tend to the 19th-century St Nicholas Church, where his grandfather painted vibrant icons, on Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek, an island off the Istanbul coast.

Heybeliada was home to a few thousand ethnic Greeks when he left, Zografos says. About 25 remain, part of a dwindling community of 2,500 Greeks in Istanbul, capital of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire until the Ottoman conquest of 1453.

Room with a view: Orhan Pamuk explores Istanbul’s double soul

pamuk (Photo: Orhan Pamuk at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, November 28, 2009/Alejandro Acosta)

From his Istanbul window, the Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk sees a city in flux.

Gleaming steel towers that signify Istanbul’s new economic power rise in the distance, rivalling more familiar views of old mosques and palaces, home to the former Ottoman dynasty. Teeming suburbs spread across hills.

Pamuk, Turkey’s most celebrated artist, has explored his country’s struggle with tradition and modernity and its identity as a land that straddles East and West in novels infused with “huzun”, a Turkish word that refers to melancholy or spiritual loss.

Cross controversy mars historic Armenian Orthodox service in Turkey

armenian 1 (Photo: The Church of the Holy Cross, an Armenian church on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, September 19, 2010/Umit Bektas)

The first Armenian Orthodox ceremony in nearly a century at a church in eastern Turkey was overshadowed on Sunday by a partial Armenian boycott because of the Turkish authorities’ refusal to place a cross on the roof of the building.

Nearly a thousand Armenian Orthodox worshippers out of the expected 5,000 people attended the service at the Church of the Holy Cross, which the government has hailed as a sign of growing religious tolerance — see here and here — in the predominantly Muslim country, which is a European Union candidate.

The church, which has been closed for services since the 1915 mass killings of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman troops, has become a symbol of Turkey’s troubled past with its Armenian minority and a painful process of reconciliation.

Mosques to become bigger part of German life – Chancellor Angela Merkel

germany mosque 1 (Photo: Khadija Mosque in Berlin October 16, 2008/Fabrizio Bensch)

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germans had for too long failed to grasp how immigration was changing their country and would have to get used to the sight of more mosques in their cities.

Germany, home to at least 4 million Muslims, has been divided in recent weeks by a debate over integration sparked by disparaging remarks about Muslim immigrants by an outspoken member of the country’s central bank.

“Our country is going to carry on changing, and integration is also a task for the society taking up the immigrants,” Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Saturday. “For years we’ve been deceiving ourselves about this. Mosques, for example, are going to be a more prominent part of our cities than they were before,” she added.

Turkey’s Erdogan scores reform referendum victory

erdoganTurkish voters strongly backed constitutional reforms on Sunday, handing a government led by conservative Muslims a new victory in a power struggle with secular opponents over the country’s direction.

“The winner today was Turkish democracy,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told followers. Erdogan had portrayed the reforms as an effort to boost the Muslim nation’s democracy and help its European Union candidacy. (Photo: Tayyip Erdogan at a news conference in Istanbul September 12, 2010/Osman Orsal)

Though Erdogan’s AK party has pushed political and economic reforms and spearheaded Turkey’s drive for EU accession since coming to power in 2002, the secular establishment accuses it of using its parliamentary majority to introduce a hidden Islamist agenda. Until the advent of AK, a secular elite had held power since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923. With the army’s once-formidable power clipped by EU-driven reforms, high courts are seen as the secularists’ last redoubt.

Art show in historic Istanbul Orthodox seminary stirs hope of reopening

halkiAn Istanbul seminary closed in 1971 is hosting its first public event in 40 years, raising hopes it may shortly be reopened by Turkey and once again educate priests for the Greek Orthodox community.

The European Union and the United States have pressed EU membership hopeful Turkey to reopen the historic school, which occupies a beautiful and commanding site at the top of the island of Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek, off the Istanbul shoreline. (Photo: Empty classroom at Halki seminary, September 18, 2006/Tom Heneghan)

“Tracing Istanbul,” an exhibition of works by Greek artists inspired by the city, has filled the school’s evocative, abandoned classrooms with paintings and brought life back to the corridors.