Whatever their rite or confession Turkey’s Christians—a tiny minority representing 0.2 per cent in this country of 70 million—have opened the doors of their churches ever since Athenagoras and Paul VI embraced in this city in 1965. Through a thousand acts of solidarity and communion, they have embarked on the inescapable path of ecumenism.
Thus, symbolically embodying leaders and ordinary people in their daily and weekly experiences, Christians will meet to pray together starting tomorrow till next Saturday in any one of the many churches that are found among the buildings of modern Istanbul.
They will meet first at the Greek Orthodox church, followed by the German church, and then the Evangelical church; then they will visit Santa Maria Draperis Catholic church, where some years ago the Friars Minor created an “International Fraternity for Ecumenical and Inter-faith Dialogue”, one of the most significant international centres for the promotion of dialogue. On Wednesday it will be the turn of the Church of Emmanuel, a US-based Protestant Church; followed the next day by the Armenian Apostolic Church, then the Syriac Orthodox Church, and finally the Armenian Catholic Church.
“Each year this week is an interesting time in Istanbul,” said Fr Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzales, who is in charge of the Brotherhood of Friars Minor. “An ecumenical commission divides up the eight days between the various Churches. Each day is like a pilgrimage in the different Christian communities who act as host to their fellow brothers and sisters.”
When you take park in liturgies according to the Latin, Syriac, Armenians Greek or Chaldean rite, in Turkish, Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, English, French or German, you strongly feel the “communion of Saints;” the one Church “holy, universal and apostolic,” constituted by a small but varied group of Christians who meet as a sign of unity and hope in the world.
Things are very different in Ankara, home to only 250 Christian, mostly Armenian families, who live amongst six million people, with a lonely building serving as a church.
In the heart of the oldest part of a modern capital built by Ataturk in 1923, at the foot of the Citadel, across from the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, hidden away amid run-down warehouses and wholesale stores, a salmon-coloured building stands out, a Coat of arms of the French Republic at its front, the French red-white-blue tricolour, waving at the top. This is the Church of Saint Theresa, Ankara’s only parish church.
In reality in 1905 this used to be Saint Clement College, an institution founded and run by the Christian Schools Brothers. In 1916 it was destroyed by fire as was the surrounding Armenian neighbourhood. Only a supporting wall and an old street name plaque saying “Kardesler sokak” or “Brothers Street” remain as evidence of what it once was.
In 1928 the French constructed a new building on the old ruins, after claiming title to the land, used it as the Embassy Chancery and French consul residence, before turning it into a French-language school in 1962.
Through such twists and turns the property was saved and the second floor, first used as the embassy ballroom, was quickly turned into the “French Embassy chapel,” served by a French chaplain.
Restored in 2002, it is now a Jesuit-run church, a place of worship recognised by the Turkish government, open to all of Ankara’s Christians. Here they meet every Sunday for the Eucharist celebrated by Fr Patrice Julienne de Pommarol, even if they have to do it according to six different rites. Here, ecumenism is the stuff of everyday life.
As a good French Jesuit and not to do anyone any injustice Father Patrice has set up a 12-member pastoral council representing each confessional community, six men and six women, one per group (Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Latin Catholic).
For them the Week of Prayer in favour of Christian Unity is not going to represent anything exceptional; it will not entail taking any special initiatives; but it will mean calling upon the Holy Spirit to transform what they experience every day into an ever present reality around the world so that what Jesus wished so much might happen, “that they may all be one” so “that the world may believe that you sent me.” Indeed it is this that the heirs to the Galatians are trying to achieve, recalling the words the fiery Paul of the Nations addressed to them: “For you were called for freedom, brothers,” so “serve one another through love.”