04/08/2009, 00.00
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Easter among the Muslims, in the land of Saint Paul

by Luigi Padovese*
The apostolic vicar of Anatolia recounts the meaning of Easter in the year dedicated to St. Paul. The Christian community in Turkey finds itself facing a situation like the one at the beginning of the country's evangelization. The foreign pilgrims, the fraternity between Catholics and Orthodox, amazement over the fascination with Jesus among the Muslims. A request to the Turkish government, for a church in Tarsus.

Antakya (AsiaNews) - Easter is uniquely special in Turkey this year, because the Pauline Year is being celebrated, and St. Paul is the one who brought the proclamation of Jesus dead and risen to our land.

In an environment steeped in religion, as the ancient world was, the apostle of Tarsus concentrated his proclamation on faith in God, mediated by the concrete reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

No religion has more startling features than this faith, which believes in the birth of God amid poverty, and his death by crucifixion. This proclamation, which calls us back to the concreteness of the Christian faith, is a message for the poor and the suffering, as it is for victims of injustice. This has become the leitmotif of the catechesis of our Christians, ever since my first pastoral letter.

As in the times of the apostle, we live in the same land, in a non-Christian society. We are a minority group that runs the risk of losing our own identity through a generic concept of faith in God. For this reason, the events of the Easter that we celebrate are important: they make us contemplate again the founding event of our faith.

A request to the government for the church of Tarsus

One fact that comforts us is seeing that precisely in these days, there is a constant flow of pilgrims, including foreign pilgrims, to Antioch and to the places of St. Paul. This area used to be outside of the pilgrimage tours; this year, it has been swamped with thousands of pilgrims. They are not tourists, but believers is seeking contact with the places in which the apostle lived. Paul was born in Tarsus, but he was part of the Christian community of Antioch, and he always returned to Antioch for his ministry. He traveled at least 16,000 kilometers in Turkey!

For this reason, Easter here among us must necessarily have a Pauline character. In this regard, we are hoping for a great Easter gift: the return of the church of Tarsus to the Christians. The Turkish and German bishops conferences, the German government authorities and the Vatican secretariat of state have asked to have a church in Tarsus where the pilgrims of any Christian confession can gather to pray. There is an ancient Christian church in Tarsus, but it has been turned into a museum. For this year, the Turkish authorities have allowed this to be used, without the need to buy an admission ticket. But this is a measure that is about to expire. What we want is a place in Tarsus where Christians can always commemorate the apostle, not in a museum, but in a church. And we are waiting for a response from the authorities. I hope that this positive response will be given to us no later than the end of the Pauline Year (June 29, 2009). The gift of the church will also be a sort of litmus test to measure how much the Turkish authorities want to do to guarantee religious freedom. We need concrete actions in order to believe that something is really changing in this country.

No jealousy between Catholics and Orthodox

Here in Turkey, the celebrations for Easter also have an ecumenical character. We Latins are a small community. This year, the date of our Easter comes one week before that of the Orthodox. It is wonderful to see how there is no opposition among the different Christian communities, but sharing: there are Orthodox who come to our services, and Catholics who go to the services of the Orthodox. On the part of the Orthodox, especially the young people, there is a desire to savor our liturgy, in part because the Latin liturgy is in the Turkish language, while the Orthodox one is in Arabic, and this creates problems of comprehension. There is absolutely no jealousy between the two communities. Instead, there is mutual support. Many Orthodox children go to our parishes for catechesis, which is also conducted by Orthodox teachers. There is no intention of proselytism, but a desire to help one another according to the means and possibilities available to each one. Everything is connected to the common situation of being a religious minority, and this permits us to overcome many obstacles and hostilities.

The fact that we are a minority makes our situation very similar to that of the beginning of Christianity, in which Paul's proclamation took place. The apostle, who was born in an atmosphere of religious imperialism, teaches us to have an attitude of respect toward the "others," and we feel that we must apply this this positive attitude to the Islamic world. Here I find many people of good will, conscientious. And St. Paul has truly taught me this new awareness as the depths where the person encounters God.

Martyrs and conversions

I must add, however, that for some of my Christians the Via Crucis is a living reality, it is not something from the past. There are truly difficult situations within the vicariate of Anatolia. The experience of the martyrdom of Fr. Andrea Santoro and other events have left their marks. There are still Christians who are close to the suffering of Jesus.

But there are also Muslims who draw near to Christianity precisely through the sufferings of Jesus. A small number of them have become Christian. Theirs has been an anguished decision, carefully considered according to the consequences, risks, the struggles that it brings to their lives. And yet they become Christian beginning precisely from their fascination with Jesus, who suffered [editor's note: in the Qur'an, Jesus escapes death and has a replacement die instead]. In addition to this, even in the past the humanity of Jesus has been exalted by certain Muslim figures, like the poet Mevlana and other Sufi mystics.

* apostolic vicar of Anatolia

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