12/05/2006, 00.00
TURKEY
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The struggle of a family to keep a church open

by Mavi Zambak
Slander and bureaucratic excuses face an Italian man, his Turkish wife and their two children as they seek to preserve the only Christian building in Samsun. They hope the journey of the Pope will bring true religious freedom to Turkey.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – “When religious freedom is institutionally guaranteed and effectively respected for both individuals and communities, it becomes for all believers the necessary condition for their loyal contribution to building society, in an attitude of sincere service, especially towards the more vulnerable and the poor”. These words spoken by Benedict XVI – in his meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, chairman of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, in Ankara on 28 November – are still echoing in the ears of Simon Matteoli. Will this scenario remain just an utopia? Simon managed to get a glimpse of the Pope from the back pews of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, during the solemn Eucharistic celebration that took place on 1 December. He would have wanted to tell him his story, the dreams he carries in his heart, together with his wife and his two small children, whose lives were abruptly turned upside down in the past few months. He would have wanted to share his fatigue and the obstacles that are being put in his way as he tried to settle by the Black Sea and to keep a Church open there. Simon made do with looking at the Pope, extending his hand through the crowd, and gleaning a word of encouragement from his speeches. Then he returned to anonymity and shortly after he saw the Pope in Istanbul, Simon was forced to return to Italy because visa problems prevented him from staying in Turkey. Now he is in Rome, trying to resolve the many bureaucratic obstacles that have come his way, all arising from a “question of residency”. The 35-year-old is married to a Turkish woman who he met one summer when he went to help in a church in Smyrna. He has never stopped thinking about how he could serve the Church and Turkey. Thus, after spending the first five years of their married life in Italy, the couple felt the desire to go to live in Turkey. As it happened, the desire re-surfaced just after the murder of Don Andrea Santoro. The couple, both involved in the church, felt they would be betraying their vocation if they remained in Italy, inundated by a capitalist logic based on the search for gain and wellbeing. He had a good job as a computer technician and she was the mother of two beautiful children aged two and four, a comfortable and fulfilled life. The couple underwent months of considerable inner turmoil struggle: all his family disagreed with him, and his parents and brothers did all they could to oppose such an outrageous plan that could well endanger the life of the couple and their two small children. On the other hand, an inner voice insisted that this was the time to live their faith to the fullest. They contacted Mgr Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, who proposed that they go to Samsun, a small town on the Black Sea, where a church dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows would soon be without a priest. The priest in question was Fr Pierre Brunissen, a French Fidei Donum priest, who was knifed and injured by an unbalanced man in early July, just a few days after the call. But by now the couple had decided: they rented their house near Pisa, he left the VAT number of his company active, they gave up everything else and packed their bags to head for Samsun. They arrived at the Black Sea in a “hot” time: police were deployed to protect the house and church, the telephone was tapped, and there was plenty of work to organize a farewell celebration for Fr Pierre. The celebration was organized in mid-September and it was then that the young family started to be slandered. Not five days later, they saw their photo on the front page of local newspapers with a caption in capital letters: “They will bring shame on Turkey”, flanked by an article that outlined their intentions (not their true ones) to have money sent to them from Italy to subsidize an association for handicapped people: this would have discredited Turkey and its abilities to look after its own disabled citizens. After that, they were even assigned a bodyguard, although it is not clear whether he was supplied to protect or instead to monitor them. After three months, a letter arrived from the local prefecture, informing them that they cannot continue to live in the church because their residence permit stipulated they were lay people, not religious. So another lengthy bureaucratic procedure was called for and it was not known when or how they would be issued a “work permit” that would allow them to “reside” in church. In the meantime, they were invited to return to Italy to redo their application from there. “How much impact will the visit of the Pope have on religious freedom in Turkey, which also depends on these very practical matters?” asked a saddened Simon. “We are in Samsun to bear witness as a Christian family. For the moment, there is no priest there and so we were keeping the church open, organizing daily prayers and the Liturgy of the Word, but we want all this to be seen as a service we are undertaking as lay people without challenging church and civil laws. I have the impression that what causes annoyance is precisely this: in this closed city, used to viewing anything different as the enemy, it is the Christian presence that causes annoyance.” He continued: “The Christian community here is truly reduced to being a tiny light. Apart from us there is a Turkish family of converts and an Armenian family that lives 50km from the city. We pray with them and once a month the new priest comes from Trabzon (400km away from where we are) to celebrate Mass. Five or six Presbyterian Protestants also come to pray, as do some Georgian women, because they feel part of a family here and it is the only open church in the area.” Already 30 years ago, the mayor at the time had issued a warrant for the destruction of this last church in the city to remain standing after the Orthodox and Armenian churches were razed to the ground. But it was not demolished by rollers thanks to a very skilled Turkish lawyer, a Muslim, who managed to find an edict of the sultan that declared “the importance of guaranteeing a Christian presence because the testimony of that which is different causes society to progress towards the greater good.” Thus, he encouraged the construction of this church in Samsun and defended its preservation. “Still today, we count of the goodwill of people who believe in our presence and we heartily hope that the visit of the Pope will help to open the hearts and minds of Turkish leaders so that they will take concrete steps towards true religious freedom, grasping the precious nature of peaceful coexistence between different religions and cultures,” said Simon, his eyes bright, lively and determined. “We also hope that the European Community will encourage and accompany this journey towards respect of religious freedom, insisting that real changes take place in the mentality and laws regarding religious and ethnic minorities. Finally, we hope that even the Church, thanks to this journey of Benedict XVI, has become aware of our modest size and our misery and that it will support us by sending men and women of God who are capable of being the gospel seed that Don Andrea Santoro desired, he who gave up his life in this land.”

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