04/06/2006, 00.00
TURKEY
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Two months on, Christians don't want "normality" after Fr Santoro's death

A Turkish Christian woman tells AsiaNews: even the bodyguards assigned to priests have been recalled. But his death, after the heartbreak, is reawakening the small Christian community.

Antioch (AsiaNews) – On Sunday, 5 February, in Trabzon – a Turkish city on the Black Sea – at the close of a day of protests and violence in the Islamic world because of the Mohammed cartoons in some western newspapers, a 60-year-old Roman priest was shot dead by two bullets to his back. He had been kneeling in prayer in the back benches of the church, after having celebrated Sunday mass in the afternoon, as usual.

The murderer was duly arrested, political and religious leaders condemned the act, and most public opinion declared itself appalled, while the haggard Christian community mourned its friend, witness and martyr.

Now, everything seems to have returned to a chilling normality. Even the bodyguards assigned to priests in Hatay and Smyrna have been recalled.

In those days, like everyone else, I flicked from channel to channel and turned the pages of the most diverse newspapers, trying spasmodically to understand, to find a reason, a motive, a meaning in this death so sudden and violent.

Many things were said… each expressed his view, his anger, his dismay, his disapproval and his amazement. Now silence has fallen, and mixed feelings reverberate in the hearts and minds of simple Christians trying to live in a Muslim-majority country.

I was a teenager when this man first came among us 13 years ago.

Already then he was silent and meditative, spending hours in our small church in prayer. We young people – and I was not even a Christian at the time – would ask our parish priest in amazement why he spent those long intervals before the tabernacle. He would reply that the priest was asking the Lord to show him the way. There was the possibility he may come to Turkey. We made a party for him on his feast day and before he left for Rome, he told us, moved: "Insallah (God willing), we will meet again".

I never saw him again save for now, dead, in many photos printed in the mass media.

In the past, we would sometimes hear the distant echo of stories of murdered priests, but this was always something that happened in faraway countries, we never suspected that it would happen here, on Turkish ground. And yet Turkey has been the land of great martyrs. We are reminded continually of this by the many pilgrims who come all the way here from around the world, to recall the roots of their Christian faith.

This land is soaked with the blood of St Ignatius of Antioch, of St Chrysostom, St Babila and others. Those were times of persecution and hate, and their icons in church tell us about them.

It is on their blood, and the blood of St Paul, who worked so much for the Gospel, that our Church in Turkey was founded and flourished.

Then the Christian communities – as though they were no longer members of the same body of Christ – were forgotten by the West, busy on other fronts, and they fell into silence.

In 1846, the Catholic Church of Latin rite, that had never led Antioch out of its sight, returned to our city with the Capuchin Brothers. The first to arrive was the Italian, Fr Basilio Galli. Tireless, active, he won the sympathy of people; he opened a chapel and a small school. The plaque at the entrance of our church reminds us how he paid with his life for his zeal: he was martyred on 12 May 1851, stabbed in the back in church by two murderers, just after he celebrated morning Mass.

He was Turkey's first modern-day martyr. After 155 years, the second, who showed the same zeal, the same energy.

The blood of the martyrs fecundates the earth.

They tell us that now the Christian community in Antioch is the most alive of all in Turkey, the most dynamic and open to dialogue and ecumenism.

What will become, then, of that of Trabzon, once flourishing and now reduced to the bare minimum?

Our parish priest explained to us that Fr Andrea is remembered as a person who committed himself to serving the poor, prostitutes and dispossessed people. In Italy, he was very involved in social work and had set up various structures to help needy people. We know well enough that one can do very little. You help someone when and how you can, but I don't think it was this that gave meaning to Fr Andrea's day.

Looking at our priests, our sisters, who left their entire world to come among us – but why do only so few decide and have the strength to stick it out here? – I ask myself how they manage to remain. Here there is dryness, inefficiency – by western standards – a poor life, without immediate successes: it is only faith that sustains and justifies such a presence.

The other night, at our weekly prayer meeting, part of the last letter Fr Andrea sent to his Italian friends was read out: "You and Turkey: who would have said years ago that I would have tied my heart to so far away? You and the Middle East: who would have said that I would have "carried in the womb" as it is said about Rebecca, two "sons" who "clash amongst themselves" (Gen 25:22), although they are brothers of Abraham himself? A mother knows her children will not be separated within her even if they are divided amongst themselves. This has happened to me too. I see in myself reasons to love one and the other, reasons to keep them together in the same "chalice" and gathered at the feet of the same cross. But I am aware also of the distance between them, even if it is corrected, but at times only disguised, by statements of friendship, respect and collaboration, sometimes truly soothed by the sincere efforts of more than one side to understand and accept the other, and to offer to each his heritage and to discover that of the other. At other times, I get the impression that these worlds are not talking deeply to each other, they are like those couples who only talk about shopping, bills, about furniture that must be shifted, or about their children's health, and they delude themselves that they are communicating while in reality they are growing further apart."

And he wanted to stay in the middle, to be an element of reconciliation with his life, and all this touched us deeply. Someone wanted to give his life for us, for us "nonexistent" Christians.

Further on, he wrote: "After a first phase of residency in Urfa-Harran, which ended some weeks ago with the closure of the "house of Abraham" and the definitive move to Trabzon, and after the second phase that ended with the completion of restoration works on the church of Trabzon, a third phase has started, as yet covered in shadows, in anticipation that God will show us his ways. This waiting unfolds in silence, prayer, hope and intimate availability to what God wants, in humbly accepting poverty of resources, people, instruments and personal capacities."

"In this phase, I reread the history of our mission, I examine the present, I go back to the beginnings of the church in Jerusalem; let us listen to the scriptures, let us seek to understand better the world we come from and the world in which we have found ourselves, let us try to be as welcoming as possible."

So what was he doing in Trabzon? He was waiting.

So why he was described as a "hero" on the front pages of newspapers in Italy? A hero fights, struggles violently, rebels using arms, wants justice at all costs, defends himself and wins by killing the enemy. It seems to me that, according to human logic, Dr Andrea was the figure of the "anti-hero".

Nor, we are told, was he a saint. He was not a saint like those in the holy pictures: languid, sickly sweet, always compliant and smiling. He had an energetic character, he was decisive, even abrupt, at times resolute, and he did not allow for compromises… one can almost hear an echo of Luke's description of Jesus, who "set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem".

A friend of his, a sister, revealed that before returning to Turkey at the end of January, he had called her in Rome and confided: "You know, pray for me because I feel that I am annoying Satan…"

A week later he was murdered in the name of God.

His death has reawakened us from the torpor of our consciences; it is reminding us what it means to die for love. It has reminded us that a Christian can make himself an uncomfortable presence that must be removed, eliminated. And if this is not the case, then one is not a true disciple of Christ.

But after death, comes Life.

The Church of Turkey perhaps needed more of this.

Perhaps we needed more of this.

His death caused us heartbreak, but it gives a new strength, a new hope. It teaches us love. That Love for which I asked for baptism, going against the advice of my family.

We have a new protector and intercessor up there. He chose to take our side. The side of the innocent and defenceless. Without rebelling. Right until the end. For love of God and brothers. This is a marytr. This is the death that brings Life.

Happy Easter in the Risen Lord and to one and all.

A Turkish Christian

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