Presiding at a Sunday liturgy at a Greek Orthodox church in central Turkey on June 21st, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew acknowledged major changes in that country with regards to minority rights.
The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians and head of the tiny Greek Orthodox community in Turkey said that advances and reforms in the government have paved the way for “previously unimaginable” religious services in the ancient churches of the Orthodox Christian community.
Turkey has a long record of abuse and discrimination of its religious minorities, including Kurds, Jews, Armenians— and Greeks in particular. Successive governments since the founding of the Turkish republic have openly discriminated against religious and ethnic minorities, even imposing special taxes on businesses in efforts to drive them out of the country.
The current government, headed by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) which came to power in 2002, has sought to restore the rights of minorities by allowing such services to take place, and also by returning some expropriated properties that were confiscated in years past.
The annual liturgy, attended by Orthodox Christian pilgrims from throughout Turkey and the world, took place in the Church of Holy Cross, a Byzantine-era church in the village of Cemil in the central Turkish province of Nevşehir’s Ürgüp, located in the historical region of Cappadocia, where a considerable Greek population lived in the 19th century before the 1922 war between Greece and Turkey.
Lawmakers from Greece, the Turkish ambassador to Athens, dozens of Greek businesspeople and artists also attended the liturgy during which the Patriarch delivered his sermon in Turkish and Greek.
Bartholomew thanked Turkish authorities for allowing them to pray in the ancient church, which has been closed for years.
“We have been praying here since 1999. It was impossible to hold a service here or in other (ancient) churches in Turkey two decades ago. But today, we live in a new Turkey and are pleased to see many things have changed. We are grateful to God and our state,” he said.
Bartholomew also shared greetings towards Muslims for their upcoming holy month of Ramadan.