Bishop says Turkish Catholics fearful, but government supportive

IMAGE: CNS photo/Nabil Mounzer, EPA

By Jonathan Luxmoore

OXFORD, England (CNS) — A
church leader in Turkey said Catholics are fearful about attending church after
recent terrorist attacks, but insisted local Christians can count on government

“Although we can move
around freely, people are understandably afraid of coming to Mass and there’s
been a drop in participation,” said Bishop Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzalez,
apostolic vicar of Istanbul.

“But all churches have been
given police guards since a coup was attempted last July, and security
officials have shown great kindness to us. Christians, Muslims and Jews are
talking together and sharing the same anxieties, although the future doesn’t
depend on us.”

The Mexican-born bishop spoke as
a car bomb killed four and wounded 11 outside a courthouse in Izmir, while a
police hunt continued for the perpetrator of a Jan. 1 attack on Istanbul’s
Reina nightclub, which left 39 dead and at least 70 injured.

In a Jan. 5 interview with
Catholic News Service, Bishop Tierrablanca said Turkey’s minority Catholic Church was thankful no resident members had been hurt or killed in the

He added that uncertainties had
been worsened by the extension of a state of emergency imposed by the
government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the July15-16 coup plot, but
said he believed this was “not a time to criticize government failures.”

“It’s a difficult moment,
and all we can really do is speak out together against terror and in favor of
peace; this, rather than any political statement, has to be our message to the
Turkish authorities,” said Bishop Tierrablanca, who also heads the
exarchate for Turkey’s Byzantine-rite Catholics.

“As participants in this
country’s normal life, we have to confront the difficulties and be vigilant,
setting aside any antagonisms.”

The Islamic State group claimed
responsibility for the nightclub attack in retaliation to Turkish military
action in neighboring Syria. Veysi Kaynak, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, said
police were closing in on the nightclub gunman after tightening security at
airports and border crossings.

Armenian Catholic Archbishop
Levon Boghos Zekiyan of Istanbul, president of the Turkish bishops’ conference,
said in a Jan. 2 statement terrorism was “a betrayal of the religious
calling” and should be answered with “unity in prayer and solidarity,
openness and concrete help.”

Earlier, Archbishop Lorenzo
Piretto of Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, said “many Muslims”
had attended a Jan. 1 Mass in Ephesus. The Mass was given police protection, and
the archbishop said he believed the Erdogan government had “shown concern
for Christian minorities.”

“The war in Syria is right
on our borders and the issue of the Kurds is complicating an already uneasy
situation,” he told the Rome-based Adnkronos news agency Jan. 2. “But
the population here is not radicalized, and everyone opposes (Islamic State) and the
fundamentalist terrorists who sow hatred against Christians and Westerners.”

Religious minorities have long
complained of being denied rights in Turkey, most of whose 75 million
inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. Minorities have faced problems recruiting
clergy, establishing associations and obtaining building permits.

During a November 2014 visit,
the pope urged greater tolerance for Christians, including the Catholic Church.

However, human rights groups
have voiced fresh concerns about human rights and democratic procedures amid
mass arrests and job dismissals since the July coup attempt, in which 246
people, mostly civilians, died.

Bishop Tierrablanca told CNS
that imams and Muslim community leaders regularly attended Catholic services
and took part in interfaith events, adding that he had personally thanked
police for helping protect a Jan. 1 Mass at Istanbul’s Cathedral of the Holy

He said Catholics in Europe and
the United States should help highlight the church’s “many positive
achievements” in Turkey, including its ecumenical links, charity work and
support for Middle East refugees, rather than “continuously spreading a
negative image of the country.”

“Despite its problems, our country
is no more dangerous than many others — the challenge is only from a few small
groups and individuals,” Bishop Tierrablanca said.

“Since Muslims form the
majority here, it’s natural the government is pro-Islam. But this poses no
problem and doesn’t prevent Catholics and Muslims from working together.”

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