Turkey Holds 'Meeting of Civilisations' for Religious Tolerance Amid EU-Bid Threat

An interfaith conference was held this week by the Turkish Prime Minister in a bid to ease out the criticism over its religious intolerance, thus gaining favour for the upcoming European Union (EU) membership talk next week.

|PIC1|According to the Associated Press (AP), around 2,000 Jewish, Christian and Muslim delegates attended the "Meeting of Civilisations" conference in the religiously and ethnically diverse southern city of Hatay in Turkey.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday to the non-Muslim delegates, "Our differences are not inevitably pushing us toward a clash; they must not."

"To those wishing for a clash of civilisations we must be able to say this: no to a clash of civilisations, yes to an alliance of civilisations," he added, as reported by AP.

Erdogan also commented that the officially secular Turkey with 99 percent Muslim can play a key role in interfaith dialogue, according to AP.

Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Turkey's chief rabbi, the nation's Armenian patriarch and the government's religious affairs minister were present at the meeting. Pope Benedict XVI did not accept an invitation but sent official representatives.

The weeklong conference closed Friday, just two days ahead of the EU membership talk on Oct. 3. The poor human rights record of Turkey, particularly in terms of religious freedom, has been identified by the 25-member bloc as a major roadblock for its membership.

During the conference, Christians were given the opportunity to report on the persecution they faced, according to Reuters' report on Tuesday.

Patriarch Vartholomaios, the Istanbul-based titular head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians said, "We have difficulty understanding the mentality which sees our rituals as a show of force and our visits (around Turkey) as missionary activity."

|QUOTE|Vartholomaios complained the distrust and hostility of the Turkish authorities towards religious groups. "We are upset by the efforts of those who try to make politics out of the Patriarchate and our community... Our Patriarchate is only a religious institution and is interested only in its religious duties," Vartholomaios said to Reuters.

Patriarch Mesrob II, the spiritual leader of Turkey’s small Armenian Christian community echoed the similar comment, appealing for greater understanding and empathy from their Turkish fellow citizens.

Even though Turkey is officially secular, Islam is closely tied up with the national identity. For instance, the national flag bears the Islamic star and crescent moon, and many feel non-Muslims are not real Turks.

More than 99 percent of Turkey’s population follows Islam. The minority Christians are mainly descendants of Greeks and Armenians who stayed after the fall of the multiethnic, multi-confessional Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. And the Turkish Government officially recognises only three communities of religious minorities - Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews, according to the annual International Religious Freedom Report released by the U.S. Department of State.

Despite Erdogan's effort to shape the country as one with religious tolerance, talks on Turkish EU membership faces new hurdles as the EU member nations are divided on their opinions.

The Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that at the European Parliament meeting in Brussels on Wednesday had seen a heated debate over Turkish EU membership. EU ambassadors harshly criticised Turkey's record on human rights and religious freedoms, claiming it has failed to meet the corresponding standard on the EU Constitution.

|TOP|According to a report on Friday by CNN, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution the day before calling on Turkey to recognise the 1915 killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide, which is a very sensitive issue for the membership talk.

Turkey is alleged of carrying out a systematic genocide against Armenians in 1915 in an attempt to eliminate them and create a homogeneous Turkish state. The Armenian people had lived in the Turkey homeland for nearly 3,000 years and were traditionally Christian. Turkey, however, has always denied the claim of killing the Armenians and said they were victims of a partisan conflict that also claimed thousands of Turkish lives.

Austria has taken a hard-line stance and has pushed for a privileged partnership between the EU and Turkey, saying Austrians and others across Europe do not support full membership, CNN reported.

Austria demanded on Thursday that only partnership relationship could be offered if Turkey fails to meet membership criteria or if the EU cannot absorb the predominantly Muslim country.

Opinion polls show 80 percent of Austrians and large numbers of other western Europeans, especially those from France and the Netherlands, oppose full EU membership for Turkey, according to CNN.

Amid all the disputes, the European Parliament, however, confirmed the membership talk set for Monday. CNN reported that Britain has called an emergency foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on Sunday evening to try to overcome the differences.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Turkish EU membership such as Britain and Germany, believe that the predominantly Muslim nation in the EU can become a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, therefore spreading stability and security, and promoting dialogue with the Islamic world.

Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Namik Tan told AFP reporters on Thursday, "Our membership carries great importance with respect to the contribution (it would make) to the future of Europe as well as the Middle East and the Caucasus and particularly to the building of an alliance between civilisations."

Eunice Or
Christian Today Correspondent