Trabzon (AsiaNews) – It was on 5 February 2006 that Don Andrea Santoro, a Roman Fidei Donum priest, was killed by two pistol shots as he was praying in St Mary’s Church in Trabzon, where he had been parish priest for three years. It was an absurd death that shocked everyone, a gesture undertaken “in the name of Allah” by a 16-year-old boy condemned to 18 years in prison.
A year has passed. It has been an intense year, full of other dramatic events, but also of small signs of change and hope in the port city on the Black Sea, the sad backdrop of the murder.
Trabzon, the historical and re-christened Trebisonda, has long been the focus of attention of media crime reporting.
In the central park of the city, hundreds of people tried to lynch members of TAYAD (Association of Prisoners’ Relatives) twice this past year, because they sought to distribute flyers that drew attention to tragic conditions in Turkey’s special prisons.
The mysterious character who spent only 11 months in prison for hurling a bomb at a McDonalds in the city in October 2004, Yasin Hayal, hails from Trabzon. He threw the bomb because the eatery dared to hold a birthday party during the month of Ramadan. He seriously injured 11 people, including five children.
And from Trabzon came the murderous hand that struck the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink outside the headquarters of his weekly, the Agos. This is the city to which Don Andrea accepted to lend his pastoral services four years ago, to reach out to a handful of Christians.
National and foreign newspapers have sought to understand this social phenomenon, filling their pages with wordy rhetoric that branded the Turkish town as a receptacle of evil, where economic crisis, a local culture exalting the use of arms, paranoid political nationalism, a social structure owing to the particular history of the city and its nearness to the countries of the Caucasus combined to form an explosive cocktail of hate and violence. But the city is starting to get tired of the image that has been created around its residents and wants to show its sane side.
The Turkish Internal Affairs Minister, under pressure from general protests, decided to get rid of the Prefect and the head of police of Trabzon, who had minimized the impact of the death of Don Andrea and the journalist Dink and links between the two murders with radical nationalism.
The director of the communal theatre of Trabzon, Necati Zengin, announced his respect for Armenians and Christians, so much so that since 24 December, the city theatre has been showing an Armenian opera (“Brother Baldassar”) translated into Turkish. It has already been performed 15 times and has turned out to be enormously successful, with a consistently full house and generous applause.
The muftì, under fire for neglecting the religious education of youth and for not explicitly condemning fanaticism and those who use violence in the name of God, has also acted. He declared that from 2 February, a “homily” on justice and Islamic morals will be held every Friday in all the big mosques of the city. The precepts of a good Muslim will be recalled and one fact that will be underlined is that the Koran explicitly says taking the life of a human being is a sin.
Recently, some youth in the city prepared a banquet in the central square, distributing a letter to send throughout Turkey with the slogan “Brotherhood or violence?” to show their intention of transforming the city from a place of shootings and murders to a city of peace and brotherhood.
These may be modest gestures but they are those “blades of grass amid the prairie” that Don Andrea knew how to find and appreciate. In his first letter from Trabzon, the Roman priest wrote in January 2003: “There is the need for miracles in Turkey, in the Middle East and in Europe. I must leave God more leeway, for his Word and his grace that He may accomplish them.” Now Don Andrea is no longer there, but something is happening in civil society and in the sensibilities of the local people.
And after the stones come the flowers. The door of the Church of Trabzon, which for years was a symbol of an uncomfortable presence, cumbersome and dangerous, has at times been the target of stone throwers and provocateurs of all kinds.
While the funeral of the murdered journalist was taking place in Istanbul on 23 January last, dozens of people gathered in Trabzon for a silent march and they had the courage to put red carnations on that door too in a sign of mourning and solidarity.
There is a young Polish priest who, together with a Romanian couple, is keeping the church of Santa Maria open. He continues, along the path carved out by Don Andrea, to live a style of presence, of sharing daily life in simplicity, prayer, humble testimony and welcome for whoever knocks to see or know the Christian faith. He admits there are still difficulties but says the climate is more relaxed and less hostile now.
These are small silent gestures, full of meaning. This is what a commemorative celebration that will take place on Monday 5 February in the church of Santa Maria in Trabzon, hopes to be, without great declarations and manifestations.
No pomposity, no clamorous celebrations but, as Don Andrea certainly would have wanted, there will be prayers of intercession, thanksgiving and supplication in a Eucharistic celebration among friends. Cardinal Camillo Ruini himself – who will participate in his personal capacity in the mass for his friend, son and brother in faith, Don Andrea, as he has long wanted to do at the place of his martyrdom – has made it clear that he does not want to wear the mitre and solemn vestments, preferring a more modest and reflective atmosphere, but the none the less heartfelt and profound for this.
Don Andrea’s mother, Maria Santoro, who is in her eighties, and his sisters will be present and they have asked to meet the city Prefect.
They will gather around the Eucharistic meal in an atmosphere of meditation, sorrow and hope, recalling a life that was broken but not eradicated, a voice that was silenced but that continues to bear witness, perhaps even more than before.
From the blood, silence and sorrow, new signs for the Church of Turkey in search of dialogue are already emerging with courage and new openness – as was so heartily desired by Don Andrea. This comes also at the invitation of Benedict XVI who from this very land recalled the “beautiful testimony” of the priest who gave himself wholly to God, the Church and the land of Turkey.
Next May, an intercultural and inter-religious centre will be inaugurated in the south of Turkey, specifically in Iskenderun, the seat of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia. The centre will be dedicated to Don Andrea Santoro who had asked for this dream of his to be realized shortly before he was killed. As a Fidei Donum priest in Turkey, he wanted to be a believing and friendly presence, to encourage an exchange of gifts, especially spiritual ones, between the East and Rome, between Christians, Jews and Muslims. He believed that such a centre could contribute to rapprochement between distant worlds, to fill cultural lacunas and to build bridges between distant shores, to open “windows” on walls that seemed to unassailable. A centre to help Islam enter more into dialogue, welcoming diversity, and steering clear of the swamps of fundamentalism and that diffidence born of lacking contact and of fear of what is different.
And thus, thanks to the passion and interest of Anatolia, Mgr Luigi Padovese, his dream is being realized. As Mgr Padovese said, “to keep alive the legacy of our slain priest, we have organized, in full harmony with the Church of Rome, the first meeting between Christian and Muslim theologians about the ‘Revealed Word’ of the two religious traditions and a meeting at the end of June about St Chrysostom, to mark the anniversary of the death of this saint from Antioch.”
The same applies to a new website that will be launched on the first anniversary of Don Andrea’s death, in close collaboration with the Don Andrea Santoro Onlus Association. The website http://www.andreasantoro.org will feature letters and meditations of Don Andrea, his biography, a bibliography and contributions to newspapers and magazines about him, in Italian as well as English and Turkish. The last will be especially important to inform the Turkish public directly about the message and the witness of Santoro, correcting the distorted image that some national newspapers gave of him. The bishop said: “I believe that the path towards greater reciprocal knowledge and friendship are the only ways to go for authentic dialogue.”
It will be the examples of friendship, affection, solidarity – perhaps small, insignificant and useless in the eyes of the powerful of this world – that will make this land fecund, although it may still appear to be arid and infertile. There are those who are sowing seeds, albeit with much effort and sorrow. Those who die will certainly not be lacking. And then the dead seed of grain in the earth will bear fruit in abundance.