Tarsus (AsiaNews) - Since Pope Benedict XVI announced the Pauline year, from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009, on the occasion of the bimillennial of the birth of the Apostle to the Gentiles, the Episcopal Conference of Turkey, made up of seven bishops - three Latin rite, two Armenians, one Syriac, and one Chaldean - has begun working on a programme of celebrations involving the most significant places where Saint Paul lived and worked.
And Tarsus, the city of this tireless preacher's birth, will certainly play a fundamental role in this anniversary.
So in anticipation of the official opening of the Pauline year, today, the feast of the conversion of Paul, an ecumenical celebration was held in Tarsus. The ceremony was attended by the apostolic vicar of Anatolia, Bishop Luigi Padovese; Padua bishop Antonio Mattiazzo; Syriac Orthodox bishop of Adiyaman Melki Urek; and the Maronite bishop of Aleppo, Youssef Anis Abi-Aad. Also present were pastors and priests of the Orthodox Church.
It was an extremely important event for the Christian communities present in Turkey and for ecumenical dialogue: gathered around their bishops and pastors, Christians of every tradition and rite from various cities in southern Turkey prayed together for the unity of the Church.
Its streets muddy in the winter and dusty in the summer, always torn up to patch the crumbling asphalt, with hand-drawn carts of all sorts, noisy cars and trucks, with little shops and stalls, people shouting as they buy, sell, greet one another, with its many minarets that dominate the city, with its nearly 200,000 inhabitants, a city in the region of Cukurova (ancient Cilicia), Tarsus today presents itself as a rural town, preserving the appearance of a Turkish farming village that grew up too fast.
Modern Tarsus stands in exactly the same place where the ancient city did: it is one of the few cities in the entire region of the Mediterranean that can boast an existence uninterrupted for almost three thousand years - and above all, preserving its original name.
Only a few reminders remain of the city's tumultuous history: a Roman gate in the city centre, also called the Cleopatra Gate because of the encounter thought to have taken place here between Anthony and the queen of Egypt; an ancient well amid the foundations of Roman houses; broken columns in the ancient Jewish quarter of the city; a fascinating bit of Roman road, very well preserved, with the remains of columns, a few capitals, and just the barest traces of ancient shops. This is what remains of the ancient city, which, as Saint Paul boasted before the Roman proconsul, was "certainly not an insignificant city". Its proximity to the two great centres of Mersin and Adana gave it a marginal economic and cultural role.
Officially, Tarsus is now completely Muslim, and there are no churches or Christians. In 1884, a church was opened by Fr Giuseppe da Genova, an enterprising Italian Capuchin who had been the apostolic prefect in Syria. But between the two world wars, the church was closed because of a lack of priests and faithful.
Currently, the only Christians openly present are three Italian sisters of the Daughters of the Church order, who keep the Blessed Sacrament in a little rented apartment, thus making the Church present. It is a sign of hope in this city where Christianity is hidden and lives silently within consciences.
For the religious practise of the pilgrims who arrive in droves, the local authorities years ago allowed services to be held in a church museum, which has just recently been restored and opened to the public.
Located among the prestigious American College (for the children of the Marines stationed at the nearby American base), an ancient hamam, and a parking lot - where children and the elderly can often be seen scavenging in the trash - stands this ancient Armenian church (in the photo). It later became a Byzantine church, but it may have been a church for the Crusaders originally. For years, it had been used as a military storage facility.
And so, almost as if by a miracle, the neighbourhood was filled with Christians again for one day. It was not a huge crowd, but it made its presence felt: the communion of prayer, the meetings among the various communities, the smiles and gestures of mutual friendship among the leaders and among the faithful bore witness to an unfeigned fraternity. The participants have come to know one another, and this encounter has become one that is anticipated and desired, above all by the young people who, coming together from their various distant cities, take advantage of the occasion to catch up with each other and exchange views. Theological differences make no sense to them.
Of course, this year the celebration had a more pronounced international character, but this coexistence is not an exceptional and sporadic event for the Christians in southern Turkey - for them, it is normal. "Unity in diversity" is a principle that is realised daily among the Christians in Anatolia. Ecumenism is at home here. Even Christian families present within themselves a variety of subtleties and blendings that are hard for a Westerner to understand: the Oriental, Catholic, and Orthodox churches are all immersed and mixed within the Muslim majority. Greek Orthodox, Syriac, Chaldean, Latin, Armenian, Maronite and Melkite all live in the same homes, the same neighbourhoods, working at the same jobs, sharing the same problems, attending the same churches, where they encounter the same community and the same priest.
In the past, diversity was justified by the simple fact that the various different cultures did exist, but now all of Turkey's Christians acknowledge one another, and their differences have become a matter strictly for the specialists. So what divides elsewhere brings unity here.
And again on January 25, they came together in Tarsus, to pray that Paul's conversion and life may be an example and encouragement for their own lives.
As the bishop of Anatolia, Luigi Padovese, recalled, referring to the pastoral letter that the Catholic bishops in Turkey prepared for the Pauline year: "The bimillennial of the birth of Saint Paul concerns all of the Christian communities, because Paul is a teacher for all of Christ's disciples, but it concerns above all us who live in Turkey. The Apostle to the Gentiles was a son of this land, and it was here that he predominantly exercised his ministry. It was here that he travelled, in under thirty years, most of the ten thousand miles of his voyages. It was above all here that he experienced hostility, deadly threats, imprisonment, beatings, and privations of all kinds, all for the sake of proclaiming Jesus Christ and his Gospel. We bishops think that, out of the goldmine of his letters, some elements can be particularly useful to our communities, which live in a minority religious status. We are immersed in a Muslim world in which faith in God is still strongly present, both in its traditional aspects and in the creation of new Islamic religious organisations. This very situation is in some ways similar to that of the first communities living in diaspora, and requires us to have a clearer understanding of our identity. And if the apostle is our teacher in the encounter with the non-Christian world, in relations among Christian communities he is our teacher and foundation of unity. The apostle's faith in the risen Christ, his hope against all human hope, his charity in becoming all things for all men, are the measure of our Christian existence in this beloved land of Turkey".
Along with this first ecumenical encounter, other events were presented that will be held during the Pauline year. On June 22, there will be an opening celebration in that same museum church of Tarsus, with the participation of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. After the solemn inauguration, a symposium on the apostle Paul will be opened, in Tarsus and Iskenderun (June 22-24). A national pilgrimage is also planned to travel in the footsteps of Paul to Tarsus-Antioch and Ephesus. Other initiatives, in conjunction with the Orthodox and Protestants, will be presented in the next few months.
The Turkish government has signalled its willingness to meet the needs that are expected to arise with these celebrations, agreeing to supply services for pilgrims and tourists arriving from Turkey and elsewhere, such as rest stops, information centres, and meeting places. This will truly be a valuable opportunity and a proving ground for democracy, respect, and dialogue between the Islamic world and the Christian minority in this land of Turkey.