02/06/2006, 00.00
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A volunteer in Turkey remembers Fr Andrea Santoro

by Mariagrazia Zambon
He wanted to open a window that would allow Western and Eastern Churches to exchange gifts, rediscover the sap that flows from the Jewish roots into the Christian tree, encourage a genuine and respectful dialogue between Christianity and Islam, and enable him to bear witness through his life and feelings.

Antakya (AsiaNews) – It was Sunday and I had just finished teaching catechism to the 12 children of our parish here in Antakya, the ancient Antioch, in southern Turkey, when Father Domenico stopped me in the garden and told me that the bishop just rang. "Father Andrea has just been shot dead less than an hour ago." Father Andrea Santoro! I can't believe it.

He was a man full of determination and earnestness. Although I met him only a few times, for brief moments, when we did meet, our interaction was always intense, straightforward, centred on God, His Word, and Jesus Christ.

I was told that he had been in Turkey in 1993 when he stopped in Antioch for about 20 days (see photo). That was his first pilgrimage to the place he liked to call "the great land where God chose to speak to mankind in a special way." And it was in the city where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians that he wanted to perform spiritual exercises alone.

He met the Orthodox Abouna who, as a sign of things to come, saw in him a passion for Turkey's Christians and so gave him a tiny piece of metal from a sliver of iron that is said to come from one of the nails used in the Cross and is jealously guarded in the basement of the tabernacle of the ancient Greek-Orthodox church of Antioch. It was November 30, the Feast Day of Saint Andrew, and Father Andrea's name-day. Deeply touched by the honour, he brought it with him to Rome. Like a nail embedded in his flesh, his fascination for the land never left him. In the country, he found "riches and means to enlighten our western world thanks to the light that God always cast on it." But he also found that the Middle East had its own dark corners, its often tragic problems, its emptiness. And for this, it needed that the Gospel that came from there should return there once again, and that the presence of Christ that once was there, be renewed there. Since then, he asked his superiors to let him go back as fidei donum.

Eventually, he did come back and it was in Istanbul in late 2001 that I met him when we both started learning Turkish. He was 20 years my senior and studying for him was difficult, but he never gave up. For him, learning the language was too important because it would enable him to directly speak with locals and be in touch with him.

He used to say: "Turkish is a very difficult language.  I am last in class and I don't know how things will turn out, but being last has its advantages. It helps you know what real, day-to-day humility means."

Later, with a broad grin he told me: "When I speak this language, I experience poverty because I am constantly learning. I can only express a small fraction of what I would like to say and have to correct right away any misunderstanding that my limited grasp of the language may cause. I do so not only by apologising, but also by giving out Italian chocolate."

However, he did also say that "in preparing my homilies, I realised that my limited command of the language forces me to focus on the essential. Being something new for me I can better understand the newness of the Gospel. Since my worshippers from different backgrounds (though most of whom are former Muslims) I am forced to go to the heart of the message and show its unsuspected riches."

When he came to Turkey he chose to go to Urfa, in the south-eastern part of the country on the border with Syria, where for three years he was a silent presence, praying in Abraham's birthplace, a city without any Christian. Everyone liked him, even the imam of a nearby mosque.

He told me that his presence in "Urfa (and in Abraham's village of Haran 45 kilometres away) always echoed what God told Abraham: 'Leave your country, your people, and your father's household and go to the land I will show you . . . and I will bless you . . . And all peoples on earth".

Urfa, he said, is every day's "beginning". Urfa is God who with an intelligence, power and love greater than our own expressed his plans to us, asking us to be at his service. Urfa is the power of the boundless blessing, joy and fruitfulness that God guarantees. Urfa is the root and compass to know where to go in Turkey and the Middle East.

This city remained in his heart even when he was asked to go to Trabzon on the Black Sea to serve at Saint Mary's parish church (founded centuries ago by Capuchin Fathers) which had been left vacant for more than three years.

Trabzon is a city of some 200,000 people. It has many mosques, but only one church serving a Catholic congregation of 15 people. It has a larger Orthodox community spread across the city and many women from Eastern Europe working in the sex trade. It also sees many young Muslims drawn to the church.  

"Here, there is a world dear to God," Father Andrea wrote in his newsletter Finestra per il Medio Oriente (Window on the Middle East) right after his arrival in Trabzon. The purpose of the publication, which eventually went online, was to "gather from this land the many riches God gave it and send from there to here the riches God created over time, so that we can interact with each other on human, spiritual, cultural and religious levels, enriching each other's life, and counter the hatred, threats and war that are too often visible on the horizon."

This was always his goal. "Open a window that would allow Western and Eastern Churches to exchange gifts, rediscover the sap that flows from the Jewish roots into the Christian tree, encourage a genuine and respectful dialogue between Christianity and Islam, and enable him to bear witness with his life and feelings, above all through prayer, the study of the Holy scriptures, friendships based on listening, talking, simplicity, his sincere believing and the way he lived."
Eventually, distance separated us—a thousand kilometres between the extreme north where he was and the far south where I was. But whenever he could he would come to the monthly retreats the Vicariate of Anatolia organised for the small number of religieux, religieuses and laity that worked in Anatolia in the service of the local Church.

Two years ago at Christmas time he told us about his concern over the fate of prostitutes, expressing his desire to do something for them in Trabzon.

"Once," he said, "we walked by a club where we knew there were young women (mostly Armenian Christian). They invited us in for tea. Sister Maria was with me and she was wearing a cross around her neck. I told the women she was a nun. We chatted about their children, the monasteries in their homeland, how hard it was to live back home . . . One of them told us that she was a paediatrician by profession."

"A few days later, we were walking along the neighbourhood's main street, praying. A woman who took her clients in a back alley saw Sister Maria's cross around her neck and came towards us waving. She kissed the nun's cross and hands, made the sign of the cross and hugged her, asking her if she needed anything. At that point, the pimp followed her, annoyed, but I told him the woman was Christian like us."

"Local clubs are full of women, often very young. What can be done? Every day, I ask the Lord to open a door for us, to lead some of the women away from that life, to touch the heart of some of the pimps, to send someone who can help us".

The bishop told me that Father Andrea went to Georgia not too long ago to get in touch with the local Church to help for these women.

There is talk that his murder might be connected with the sex trade mafia that traffics in Christian prostitutes from countries from the former Soviet Union. Others believe that it might be motivated by politics and religion. They say that those behind the murder might be trying to trigger a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, a conflict that in Turkey does not exist and has no bases, but which is enflaming other Muslim countries following the publication of blasphemous cartoons in Denmark.

But who could be more harmless and unassuming than Father Andrea? I saw him two months ago in Iskenderun, at the See of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia. It was our monthly retreat and we talked about the Cross. He told us: "Often I ask myself: What am I doing here? And the words of John the Baptist would come to mind. 'And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us'."

"I live among these people so that Jesus can live among them through me. In the Middle East, Satan continues to destroy, remembering and loyal to the past. As it was at the time of Jesus, silence, humility, the simple life, acts of faith, miracles of charity, clear and defenceless witness, and the conscious offering of one's life can rehabilitate the Middle East"
After a long pause, he took off his glasses letting them hang around his neck and spoke again, calmly, as if talking to himself. "I am convinced that in the end there are no two ways, only one way that leads to light through darkness, to life through the bitterness of death. Only by offering one's flesh is salvation possible. The evil that stalks the world must be borne and pain must be shared till the end in one's own flesh as Jesus did." Not one word more, not one less.

After he spoke silence fell on the room; then he looked at his watch and got up quickly, apologised, picked up his small suitcase and left the room almost running. He didn't want to miss the plane that would take him back to 'his Trabzon', where he was kneeling yesterday, praying in his church; where a bullet pierced his heart.

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