As a teenager growing up in a tough Istanbul neighborhood, Recep Tayyip Erdogan studied to be an Islamic cleric. His dream, though, was to become a professional player on the local Kasimpasa football team. In the end, neither ambition worked out: he became Turkey’s prime minister instead. Now, after nine years in power, Erdogan has just pulled off his third—and biggest—general-election win on an ambitious program that includes a radical redrawing of Turkey’s Constitution. The theology student from Kasimpasa now wants to remake the hard-wiring of the Turkish state by scrapping restrictions on religious freedom; creating a powerful French-style presidency (presumably with himself as the first incumbent); and by making the country’s judges, universities, and Army more accountable to Parliament: a to-do list that rings loud alarm bells for many Turks—and friends of Turkey. The country’s old secular elite fears that allowing Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party a say in the appointment of judges, school principals, and university rectors will make the country more Muslim and more conservative. Pundits and politicians in America and Israel aren’t thrilled with the idea of giving Erdogan more power—especially after he railed about a Jewish press conspiracy against him during the campaign. And Turkey’s chattering classes are increasingly concerned about Erdogan’s intolerance of criticism. One hostile newspaper magnate has been landed with crippling tax bills, while more than 60 Turkish journalists languish in jail—more than in China.
Unexpectedly, though, Turkey’s tiny but ancient Christian community has welcomed the AK Party’s most recent landslide. Erdogan may be a deeply devout Muslim, and his party dominated by nondrinking, headscarf-wearing Sunni Muslims. But despite his Islamic grassroots, Erdogan advocates a historic softening of Turkey’s 80-year-old anti-Christian rules. Most significantly, he has helped save the 1,700-year old patriarchate of Constantinople. The current Patriarch Bartholomew, as senior bishop of the Orthodox Church, is spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox faithful around the world. But a 1923 Turkish law insists that the patriarch and all members of the Synod—the Orthodox equivalent of the Catholic College of Cardinals—be Turkish citizens drawn from Turkey’s tiny ethnic-Greek community, now just 2,500 strong. With Bartholomew already 71, and most of the Synod not much younger, it looked as though the end of the institution was nigh. But by granting Turkish citizenship to a new crop of younger Orthodox bishops from around the world, Erdogan likely saved the institution by ensuring Bartholomew’s succession.
Father Dositheos Anagnostopulos of the patriarchate calls the move the “most positive thing I have heard from the Turkish government in my lifetime.” Erdogan’s government has also passed a new law that will allow Christians to reclaim land and property illegally confiscated over recent decades. An ancient Armenian church in eastern Turkey, derelict since the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, has been restored at state expense, and Armenian priests have been allowed to hold services there; a mass was also recently allowed at the ancient Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery.
Erdogan’s motivation is simple: giving Christians more control over their property and religious education will pave the way for Islamic institutions to have more freedom, too. And Turkey’s leading clerics have made a point of speaking out in defense of Christian rights. “The freedom of the religious minorities is our freedom,” Mehmet Görmez, the AK Party’s recent appointee as head of the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, told a conference recently. “We feel the same pressures that they do.” It’s a nice interfaith solidarity statement but not the full picture. True, ultranationalist Turks are equally suspicious of Islamists and Christians. But the AK Party has used its power to give Islam a huge boost by sponsoring mosque building all over the country. Turkey’s tiny Christian minorities, on the other hand, still face intense prejudice and discrimination from bureaucrats who believe that Christians are undermining Turkishness. The root of the problem is that Turkey’s Greek, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox communities highlight what French writer Sébastien de Courtois calls “Turkey’s identity problem.” Turks are fiercely proud of their homeland—yet Turks have been in Istanbul for not much longer than Europeans have been in America. “The true question is, how can you be a Muslim in a land where you still have representatives of an earlier culture?” says de Courtois. And Turkey’s founding narrative, taught in all schools, is how Christian armies from Greece attempted to strangle the Turkish republic in its cradle in 1923. They are also taught that it was treacherous Armenians who massacred Turks in 1915, not the other way around. Turks are still “poisoning themselves with lies,” says Rakil Dink, widow of Hrant Dink, the editor of the Istanbul-based Armenian-language Agos newspaper who was gunned down by ultranationalists in 2007. “Fears, anger, rage, jealousies, hatreds, prejudices, and insecurity belittle all of us.”
Money plays a part, too. Plenty of Turks have benefited from the plunder of Christian properties—and aren’t too happy about new laws that help the Greeks reclaim their holdings. Still, there are signs that attitudes are softening toward Turkish Christians. In 2007, after Dink’s murder, an estimated 50,000 people protested, some carrying placards saying, “We Are All Armenians Now.”
It seems the Christians of Istanbul have found an unlikely ally in the AK Party—not just because of its reforms, but more because Erdogan has attacked the ultranationalists who have always been the Christians’ biggest enemy. “Change is going to be painful and frightening,” says Dink. No doubt—but the Kasimpasa kid who almost became an imam is making the first moves to heal a century of nationalist hatred.