A ticket to Europe for Turkey? Yes, but …
by Marek Zuboir

Efforts by government, scepticism of the elderly, optimism of young, secular Mulsims.  Msgr Franceschini, bishop of Anatolia: "We're on the right path, but there's still a long way to go".

Ankara (AsiaNews) – For months, the question has dominated Turkish newspapers and television: will Turkey get its ticket to Europe?  Tomorrow is the deadline for the verdict: discussions and debates are getting more and more intense.

A year has passed since the spokesperson for the European Enlargement Commission, Hansjorg Kretschmer, went to Antioch to meet with representatives of non-Muslim ethnic minorities in Turkey and to report on Ankara's candidature for entry into the European Union.

The Turkish government has been showing good will: in the last year, 3 important reform packages were enacted to bring Turkish legislation in line with Copenhagen criteria.

Reforms to the National Security Council were the beginning of a gradual and complicated adjustment to the military's role in political life; the death penalty and the controversial criminalization of adultery have been abolished thanks to criminal code reform.

Though Turkey is still far from being a model of tolerance vis-à-vis ethnic and cultural diversity, laws recognizing the cultural rights of ethnic minorities have been introduced, as a result of European aspirations.  This is especially true for the Kurds, who have always been frustrated by restrictions on the use of their mother tongue in private schools and in television transmissions, and on the possibility of using their Kurdish-language names on documents and in public places.  Foreign clergy and religious are amazed to see themselves granted extended stay permits.  On entering prisons, in the wake of strong pressure brought to bear by foreign public opinion, one finds more humaneness in the air.

In terms of democracy and human rights, Turkey is converging substantially on European standards, even if deficiencies persist: widespread corruption, discrimination against women, limitations to the rights of minorities, pressures on the press.

An air of optimism among the people

But what does the average person think about Turkey's entry into Europe?  If asked, people instinctively answer with a hearty laugh.  The elderly think it is impossible to blend two cultures that are so different: they still think of themselves as the heirs of the Ottomans.  For young people, a "European" Turkey is a dream: "Will you ever really accept or recognize us as one of your own?  Will you really be willing to share a piece of the pie with us, in terms of well-being and lifestyle?" many young people ask, thinking of Europe as the land of plenty and of liberty.

But the many who have had the good fortune to study in Europe, and are now doctors, lawyers and engineers, claim to have already "a European heart and mind".  They admit to having learned the values of justice, equality, respect for the individual, and solidarity "from the Europeans".  And they are grateful for this.

For adults, with their greater realism, the target is still a long way off, especially when it comes to degraded social structures – schools, health care, employment services – not to mention the economic crisis, marked by heavy inflation and the devaluation of Turkish currency.  Nevertheless, they are in favour of Turkey's entry into the European Union because they can foresee its important, positive effects.

Thus, there is an air of optimism among people: everyone harbours hopes of gaining in terms of lifestyle and freedom of expression.

I come across a group of veiled young ladies and ask them, "What do you think of Europe's entry in Europe?  Do you not fear losing your identity?"  They smile; one decides to talk for the rest: "The life of Muslim women in France is not much different from our everyday life here: we go to university and, for some time, have come to terms with having to remove our veil on the doorstep of classrooms, in the name of the 'laicity of the State'.  Some of our peers have been fighting against this for some time, to the point of actually wearing a wig over their veil to avoid taking it off…What would change for us?  They have accustomed us to living our faith in private and not publicly.  We understand perfectly the difference between state and religion; this is a legacy of Ataturk that we understand for the sake of respecting others, even if it comes at a cost."

Apart from the exterior sign of the veil (worn, for that matter, by a very small minority), Turkish women strongly believe that they will acquire greater dignity and respect in taking on the standards of European women.

National newspapers reported on a survey that says that 60% of the population is in favour of a European Turkey, even if a substantial fringe of nationalists and fundamentalists fear that their roots will get lost in the great sea of Christianity.

Violations to the rights of Christians

Naturally, the Christian minority, which still sees itself limited on religious grounds, is among those hoping in the positive effects of European accession. Christians are still precluded from military careers and the higher levels of public office: this because Christians are held to be a "suspect" social group for the country's security.  Christians cannot attend religious schools, since seminaries, novitiates and schools for vocational formation have been abolished.  If a young man, for example, feels called to the priesthood or to consecrated life, he must go abroad. Furthermore, the Catholic Church, lacking legal personality, cannot own real estate; to restore historical buildings, it must obtain authorization from the regional offices of the state authorities charged with protecting the country's cultural endowments. New churches cannot be built to meet the religious needs of the Christian faithful.

Religious structures that fall into disuse, due to the prolonged absence of clergy or faithful, become state property.  Due to such rules, various religious minorities – such as the Greek-Orthodox, Jews, and the Armenian Church – have lost numerous places of worship.  These problems are still an open question: a year has gone by since a committee representing the Greek-Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian and Catholic Churches petitioned the Turkish prime minister, as well as the ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, asking them to exam these fundamental and unresolved problems in view of European integration.   A reply has yet to arrive from Ankara.  The Christian minorities' hope is that, with the excuse of naïve optimism for the qualifying targets already met, such questions are not forgotten, as they are indispensable to any country that hopes to define itself as democratic.

Monsignor Ruggero Franceschini is bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia and president of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Turkey.  This is the question I put to him: "Does Turkey qualify or not to enter Europe?"  Without hesitating, he says he sees no difficulty or impediment, even if there is still a long way to go, adding also that it will take at least another 10 or 15 years for there to be a real transformation on human rights, but Turkey is on the right path.  A sort of diplomatic "Yes, but…".  (MZ)