04/09/2021, 13.19
TURKEY - ITALY
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Vicar of Anatolia: Father Aho's conviction is 'surprising’ since no crime was committed

“Giving bread and water to those who knock on the door of monasteries is a tradition that goes thousands of years,” Bishop Bizzeti said. The monk was so sure of his innocence that he did not hire a lawyer. People are waiting to read the verdict’s full text. It is “premature” to claim that politics or religion are behind it.

Rome (AsiaNews) – The 25-month sentence inflicted on Assyrian monk Sefer Bileçen for providing aid to a terrorist organisation is “very surprising”. Since November most people thought he would be acquitted  “because there was no case to answer,” said Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia.

The prelate, who also heads Caritas Turkey, spoke to AsiaNews about Wednesday’s court decision against the clergyman, who is familiarly known as “Abuna (Our Father) Aho”.

For the bishop, “There was no real offence. Giving bread and water to those who knock on the door of monasteries is a tradition that goes thousands of years,” he explained.

The monk’s conviction has caused deep dismay and incredulity. His fault, if it can be called that, was to give food to people who turned up at the gates of his monastery. According to the prosecutor, the people in question were members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

Custodian of the ancient Syriac Orthodox convent of Mor Yakup (St Jacob), Abuna Aho has always claimed his innocence since he was arrested on 9 January 2020 (released four days later). However, according to the indictment before the High Criminal Court in Mardin, he is guilty of “belonging to a terrorist organisation”, the outlawed PKK.

“Christian monasteries have a tradition of thousands of year to offer food and drink to those who knock on their doors, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity,” explained the bishop.

“Abuna Aho acted in total good faith, following Christian tradition, so much so that he didn’t feel the need to hire a lawyer for his defence in the trial. He told the court several times that he gives to anyone, ‘as I always do' as it is an act of charity that cannot be denied to anyone.” 

The matter is worrisome because of its background; however, the Vicar of Anatolia urges people to stay calm and “read the verdict as soon as it is published for maximum transparency.”

Recently, various groups and movements have been collecting signatures to obtain the monk's release, which the court decision will likely boost.

In this regard, the prelate stresses that “drawing attention to the matter is the right thing to do, but we must also be careful not to exploit it. We must first know the reasons that led to the verdict.”

Turkish media have extensively covered the story. In a multicultural nation, everyone “can read the story their own way giving their own comment,” said Bishop Bizzeti; however, it his view, it is “premature” to claim that politics or religion are behind the verdict.

More broadly some signs are troubling. They include the transformation of the ancient Basilica of Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora into mosques, the disappearance of an elderly Christian couple, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on the protection of women, and the treatment of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Yesterday Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi castigated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying “With these, let’s call them what they are - dictators - with whom one nonetheless has to coordinate, one has to be frank when expressing different visions and opinions.” In Ankara, Turkey’s  response was fast and furious, with a summon to the Italian ambassador.

For Bishop Bizzeti, the so-called Sofagate shows that “the problem is not so much Turkey but Europe’s inability of asking for an adequate protocol.” Ultimately, “western nations are not above the issue of violence against women; they might issue many statements of principle but in practice the problem is wider.”

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