Christians and the Turkish Vote: Will challenges to Erdogan’s reelection improve religious minorities’ status?
A century after the creation of modern Turkey out of the ruins of what had been the multiethnic and multireligious Ottoman Empire, Christians and other minority communities still face profound institutionalized discrimination in the country. Presidential elections on May 14 are not likely to change the status of those minority communities—that remains a low priority for Turkish voters—but the results could indicate if the populist Islamism promoted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be losing its appeal.
Polls suggest that the authority of Mr. Erdogan, who has held on to power for more than two decades, appears for the first time in years to be significantly threatened. The strong man of Turkey is currently running second to Kemal Kilicdaroglu in voter sentiment surveys conducted in May. He may be losing ground with voters still in mourning for the almost 51,000 who died after earthquakes and aftershocks devastated southern Turkey in February—many remain furious because of the government’s halting response—and an ongoing economic crisis also continues to be a drag on support for the current president.
President Erdogan faces off against Kemal Kilicdaroglu
Mr. Erdogan’s only credible opponent in the upcoming election, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has pulled together six parties from different religious and nationalist allegiances into a coalition to challenge Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Kilicdaroglu promises unity instead of division and a re-democratization of the country, but he has been described as an uncharismatic figure by local political analysts.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu has pulled together six parties from different religious and nationalist allegiances into a coalition to challenge Mr. Erdogan.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s inclusive approach to minority communities might derive from his own experience as a member of the Alevis community, a heterodox branch of Islam that has been persecuted in Turkey, according to Ramazan Kilinc, distinguished professor of political science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska. A win by Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s coalition could open the door for religious and ethnic minorities to participate more actively in Turkey’s civic life and express their political demands more clearly, he added.
The prospects of that win improved slightly when Muharrem Ince, the leader of the center-left Homeland Party, announced on May 11 that he was withdrawing from the race. Mr. Ince had come under intense criticism for splintering the votes of Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s six-party Nation Alliance.
Few Catholic priests and bishops were willing to talk about contemporary Turkish politics with America, perhaps reluctant to criticize a government that leaves little room for dissenting voices. Political expression is not easy for anyone in Turkey, according to Mr. Kilinc.
“In Turkey, the problem, in general, is [the lack of] freedom of press and freedom of speech,” he said. “In this context, it’s difficult for the members of the church to express their concerns.”
Despite its roots in a multicultural empire, Turkish society is very nationalist and continues historic narratives that tend to vilify minority groups, Mr. Kilinc said. Non-Muslim minorities feature in conspiracy theories that often portray Christians as collaborators with foreign powers seeking to undermine Turkish identity.
The Hrant Dink Foundation is a human rights advocacy founded after the 2007 assassination of the prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist. In a 2019 report, its researchers identified hundreds of examples of hate speech in the Turkish media directed at Armenians, Christians and Jews. Rhetoric that denounces or raises suspicions about ethnic and religious minority communities in Turkey is also regularly used by politicians.
Despite its roots in a multicultural empire, Turkish society is very nationalist and continues historic narratives that tend to vilify minority groups.
Among Christian groups, Turkey’s Catholic minority faces additional challenges, given the uncertain legal status of the Catholic Church in the country, said the Most Rev. Martin Kmetec, O.F.M. Conv., the archbishop of Izmir. The church’s lack of legal recognition creates several problems, Archbishop Kmetec said. Parishes cannot open bank accounts to manage their expenses; they cannot manage school or social institutions or acquire property by purchase or inheritance. They can even be dispossessed of their church buildings. In Turkey, Catholic communities are also usually led by foreign-born pastors, who cannot vote.
Will status quo change for Christians in Turkey?
Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its abbreviation A.K.P., made progress on improving relations with the country’s Christian minorities between 2002 and 2012, according to Mr. Kilinc. Mr. Erdogan, with an eye on Turkey’s possible acceptance into the European Union, had been attempting at that time to improve Turkey’s human rights record. Though the A.K.P.’s Islamist favoritism has been a problem for Christians and other minority religious communities, the radical secularism of previous leaders was arguably harder on religious expression, according to longtime observers of Turkey’s political life.
“In the past, the secular elite’s approach to religion was more negative in general,” Mr. Kilinc said. Before Mr. Erdogan’s administration, Muslim women were prohibited from wearing a veil in educational or public institutions, and Sufi adherents, especially members of Sufi orders known as dervishes, famous because of their whirling meditative prayer, had been forbidden to practice their rituals.
Despite overtures to Christians, Mr. Erdogan still relies on the most Islamist and reactionary fringe of his electorate, according to Mr. Kilinc points out. But even the opposition coalition pulled together by Mr. Kilicdaroglu to challenge Mr. Erdogan includes extreme nationalist partners “that continue to see Christians as a fifth column,” said Jean-François Pérouse, a researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.
Mr. Pérouse believes there is little prospect for change because of the ubiquity of Turkish nationalism within political parties. For Christians to see a change in the country’s attitude and politics, he argues, it will take much more than a change of government. “I think that the real danger, more than a return to an Islamist state, is narrow-minded nationalism,” said Claudio Monge, director of the Dominican Study Institute in Istanbul and consultant to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The withdrawal into nationalist identity is a political phenomenon being experienced around the world, he added.
At the end of the Ottoman Empire, Mr. Monge said, “it was necessary to build a somewhat artificial identity at the time of the nation-states. Nationalism was the unifying factor.”
In contemporary times, he said, “I would like this national vision to be less rigid” and for modern Turkey to begin a social and political evolution so that “cultural and religious diversity is not seen as an attack on national unity, but as a factor that can enrich it as a contribution of active citizenship.”