Fr Pierre Brunissen has been savagely knifed in Turkey – the fourth attack on Catholic priests in that country this year. His attacker has apparently complained about Fr Brunissen’s missionary activities. It is unlikely that Fr Brunissen was, in fact, proselytizing — the Catholic Church is not especially active in missionary work in Muslim nations, for the simple reason that it’s generally a swift road to death for both converter and the converted. Muslim orthodoxy prescribes death for the apostate. (Indeed, one of the cardinal problems with modern Islamism is the breadth of acts which constitute “apostasy” in its eyes: in a Turkish context, we read in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow that Islamist youth confuse ordinary adolescent lovesickness with this act.)
The grim catalogue of assaults on clerics betrays a resurgent paranoia within Turkish society – a paranoia that does not sit well with that nation’s pretenses to membership in “Europe”:
* The first priest attacked this year – and the only one to die thus far – was Fr Andrea Santoro. He was shot in the heart this past February with a 9mm pistol by a Muslim youth angry over the infamous Danish cartoons in an act of “religious revenge.” Fr Santoro died while praying in his church in Trabzon (itself ancient Trebizond): the killer yelled “Allahu akbar,” before firing twice into the priest’s back.
* Mere days after Fr Santoro’s murder, Fr Martin Kmetec, a Slovene Franciscan, was beaten in the Aegean port city of Izmir – former Smyrna – by a gang of youths angry (again!) over the infamous Danish cartoons. According to press reports, they seized him by the throat and shouted, “We will make you all die!”
* The next month, Capuchin priest Fr Hanri Leylek was threatened by a knife-wielding youth in the same city of Mersin that Fr Santoro perished in. The assailant, one Erdal Gurel, forced his way into the parish convent, yelling insults against Christianity and telling the priest, “You are not a human being! I will violate your mother, your sisters, your children.”
The founding myth of the Turkish state is its secularism. Turks, through the iron fist of the army and the soft persuasion of politics, have supposedly moved past the more regrettable manifestations of their Muslim heritage: jihad, dhimmitude, the killing of apostates, etc. But Turkey remains Muslim, and in an echo of the Ottoman millet system and the fundamental national concept of Islamic nationhood, that religion remains key to national identity despite the decades of secularizers – even to this day, a Christian holding Turkish citizenship is not considered a “Turk” per se.
Two things result from this state of affairs: First, a tension is set up between the demands of Islamic orthodoxy and the demands of modernism; when this tension is resolved in favor of orthodoxy, it is resolved in a fashion as decisive and hence violent as possible. Second, the line between an assault to Islam and an assault to the (supposedly secular) Turkish state, when coming from a non-Muslim, is blurred to the point of meaninglessness. Note, for example, this story, in which Turkish Christians in Turkey are threatened, not by Islamists, but by Turkish nationalists. The continuing pattern of demonization in the media speaks for itself: “Missionaries who are taking over every part of Turkey have now taken up residence at book fairs,” read a subhead in the right-wing Yeni Cag. In the Turkish smash hit film Kurtlar Vadisi Irak, devout Christians are shown killing Muslim children to harvest their organs: a pop-media twist on a libel previously reserved for Jews. (Indeed, in the movie, it’s a Jewish American doctor who oversees the organ-harvesting.) And on the official level, the line between defense of nation and defense of Islam is nearly nonexistent. Indeed, Christians there must operate in a gray underground of caution:
...Turkish police charged 293 people with “missionary activity” from 1998 to 2001, a state minister told parliament recently. People who place calls to Christian groups operating inside Turkey are warned against uttering the word “missionary” on an open phone line.
“Lots of my friends say ‘the M word,’ ” one receptionist said.
The attacks on priests in Turkey take place against this background of nationalist resentment and Muslim paranoia. One can only wonder how these will be inflamed when Pope Benedict XVI visits Istanbul in November. The fear and the violence are a curious combination for a state and society proclaiming its ardent wish to enter “Europe” by means of the EU. Why join a club whose basic identity and history are inimical to one’s own? In this context, Europe’s mere consideration of the possibility betrays the fundamental self-negation at the core of the European project.
The wounded bodies of the priests are warning – and prelude.
As an addendum, one may well ask why Catholic priests are being assaulted in Turkey, when the country is bounded by the Orthodox world. The answer is simple enough: the native Orthodox communities of Anatolia and Thrace have long since been almost wholly wiped out. The Armenian genocide is well enough known (outside of Turkish officialdom, in any case); less well-known is the slow extermination of the Greek community of Constantinople. On the latter, one could do far worse than start with Speros Vryonis’ The Mechanism of Catastrophe.